A SCHEME that sees minor but prolific offenders sent away to tackle their personal problems in the community should be extended across the country, according to a new report.

Under the Aberdeen Problem Solving Approach (PSA) sheriffs give criminals who would otherwise get a prison sentence a chance to work with social workers and other support to help them deal with underlying factors such as debt, addiction, homelessness or past trauma.

A new report says courts across Scotland should consider rolling out the scheme which, which was introduced for women in November 2015 and extended nine months later to also cover male offenders aged 16-25. The report was commissioned by the Scottish Government and launched by Ash Denham, Minister for Community Safety.

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She said the numbers involved were small, but the evidence suggested other areas should consider adopting the approach: “Initiatives such as the Aberdeen Problem Solving Approach are a great example of the work being done across the country to help individuals caught in the cycle of reoffending to turn their lives around,” she said.

The study says while 13 of the 48 participants did subsequently go to prison, the figures are a success given the nature of those involved. Most had ten or more convictions and a minimum of seven, and nearly all had served at least three prison terms.

Under the PSA, after being given a deferred sentence, participants return regularly to court to have their progress assessed by a sheriff who encourages or chides them depending on their progress. Those who failed risked a prison sentence, but those who succeeded were mostly handed an admonishment and discharged.

The authors of the independent review, by Ipsos MORI Scotland and the University of Stirling concluded the approach “shows promise”, but reported it was less successful for people with more entrenched problems and those who were not yet ready to change.

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Those who did well – and the professionals working with them – cited changes such as a reduction in reoffending, using fewer illicit substances and improved mental health, employability and living situations.

Lorraine Murray, Research Director at Ipsos MORI, said: The fact that over half of participants were not in custody by the end of their involvement in the PSA is very encouraging.”

Dr Hannah Graham, Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Stirling, said: “These participants have encountered multiple adversities – for example, financial difficulties, homelessness, bereavement, being care experienced – and many of them live with mental illness, trauma, abuse and addictions.

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“Prison has been tried with this group and doesn’t seem to be making a difference. Meanwhile a prison sentence can result in the loss of tenancy, loss of children and a lack of hope - which can increase the risk of further offending.”

“These people are in and out of court, often being given short prison sentences, without the underlying issues being addressed. This approach seeks to do that to address the issues contributing to repetitive cycles of crime and punishment, so they can move on with their lives.

“Our review found the Aberdeen PSA is working well, and other parts of Scotland should consider following its lead.”

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owever Liam Kerr, Scottish Conservative shadow justice secretary, said judges needed the freedom to decide sentences and called for ministers to drop their plans to extend the current presumption against short sentences.

“This report is interesting but limited as the numbers involved are so small,” he said. “The project is far less successful for those with entrenched problems or who do not wish to change.

“Judges must also have the ability, to make the right sentencing decision based on the facts. A presumption against short term sentences would prevent that, which is why the SNP must ditch this proposal now.”