It was once mocked as a school for a lifetime in adult jails.


For years grim and overcrowded Polmont Young Offenders Institution churned out young men still locked in to a cycle of re-offending.

Not any more. New figures reveal half of all first-time inmates the facility near Falkirk never return behind bars.

This change comes after dramatic declines in youth crime meant that its population has more than halved since 2007, leaving staff with more time - and space - to offer youngsters the chance of real rehabilitation.

Justice secretary Michael Matheson, warmed welcomed what he called the "unique Scottish approach" at Polmont that has seen a new partnership with education and health authorities dramatically change culture at the institution.

Mr Matheson, speaking to a gathering of workers at Polmont, said: "The transformation at Polmont has been significant over the years.

"And it is not just in bricks and mortar, it is the way you work.

"The approach you are taking is starting to demonstrate the real impact it can have to change young people.

"Last year the figure for young people coming to Polmont for the first time was 34 per cent and more than half of them will not come back. "That is a dramatic switch in direction."

Speaking to The Herald, Mr Matheson stressed he believe too many youngsters were locked up in Polmont in the past.

He said: "There was a time when Polmont was seen as a university to progress to the adult prison estate.

"Too often Polmont was seen as an easy option.

"There was a lack of alternatives to custody. Now sheriffs have alternative disposals they can and do have confidence in."

Reconviction rates for young offenders have plunged in recent years.

In 2003-04 the number of reconvictions per offender was 0.82. By 2012-13 it was 0.57. That is a drop of nearly a third. In contrast, reconviction figures are up for older offenders.

Incarceration figures for young people have come down even further

The Herald last month revealed there were around 400 men and women aged 21 or under in the country's prison system.

That compares with a daily average of nearly 1000 youngsters on remand or on sentence in 2006-2007, the last full year of the old Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition at Holyrood.

Numbers have fallen so far that one of the main halls at Polmont, the main facility for young offenders, is now nearly empty.

Back in 2007 an official watchdog found that the facility was "dangerously overcrowded". The then HM Inspector of Prisons, Andrew McLellan, questioned whether all young offenders could continue to be kept there. His successor Hugh Monro in 2013 published what he called "shocking findings" on Polmont, saying the part of the facility housing the youngest offenders, those just 16 and 17, had "lost its way".

That report was based on an inspection in 2012 just weeks after current governor Sue Brooks took over.

The chief executive of the Scottish Prisons Service, Colin McConnell, said: "Where Polmont is now is lights years ahead of where it was just a few years ago. But it is a journey, not a destination."

The official, a former prison officer, looked to best practice overseas on young offenders when hefirst took over the service in 2012. He said: "Now we have had a role reversal where we have other countries talking about Polmont."

A study last year revealed that the peak age of offending had risen to 23, from 18 in the 1980s. The number of convictions for young men has fallen 70 per cent in a generation.