John Halley: Youth justice needs compassion, not retribution

John Halley

On 3 June 2019 Linda and Stuart Allan posted the following on Twitter:

“Katie we do not know if you left us a year ago today or a year ago tomorrow. We only know you are gone and our hearts are broken. You are loved. You are missed every day. Rest well our beautiful girl.”

This heartfelt statement screams aloud a reality that all parents, and others, should heed: this unmitigated tragedy could happen to any of us.

Katie was a student at Glasgow University. She committed a serious crime. She caused serious injuries to a young man when she hit him while driving her car after consuming four pints of cider. The Sheriff concluded that there was no alternative but to impose a custodial sentence of 16 months’ duration. It seems that, from that point on, Katie’s, Linda’s and Stuart’s fates were sealed.

Pause now for a moment and reflect: what Katie did was criminal and indefensible; she accepted her guilt and pled guilty immediately. But did she pose a danger to society, or present a risk of re-offending in the same way again? Or, did she make terrible and stupid, criminal, mistakes that were wholly out of character? As parents, we recognise that sometimes our young people do make very serious errors of judgement, often to their own detriment and to the detriment of others. Especially where alcohol is involved.

Linda and Stuart had to watch on, disempowered, as Katie deteriorated before their very eyes, visit by visit. Frequent strip searches and bullying by others made Katie’s life intolerable. Linda says this:

“When a young person is sentenced, a mother’s right to protect their child ceases. I have reflected often on Katie’s death, pondering all the ‘what ifs’. The deep guilt and responsibility I feel will never leave me. What if I had refused to leave the visit hall the day before Katie died…what if I had demanded to speak to whoever was in charge…and yet Mrs Stickle attended numerous case conferences and still the outcome was the same.”

Linda’s reference to Mrs Stickle is to the mother of another young person who took his own life in very similar circumstances in custody in 2006. Dylan Stickle was but one in an alarming number of suicides in custody in Scotland. An FAI was held. I represented Mrs Stickle against, effectively, six or seven other represented opponents, including the Crown.

Yesterday, Linda and Stuart Allan articulated the need for compassion, not retribution. On the first anniversary of the news of Katie’s death, they admirably and selflessly offered thoughts for the prison officers who found Katie. A compassionate example on their part.

Katie’s death, and the death of 16-year-old William Lindsay later in 2018, have rightly provoked suggestion that our systems need to be reconfigured. Our system of youth justice is described in the recent Report into Polmont YOI by the Chief Inspector of Prisons in Scotland as “visionary”. It is certainly unique. One way of testing the truth of the statement is to ask whether any other jurisdictions are seeking to copy it? None have and none are. An alternative “acid test” might be to look at the life and death of William Lindsay. He was introduced into the child protection system in Scotland very soon after birth. He remained “cared for” by that system until his death, by his own hand, at 16 in custody.

I spent some time in Oslo, Norway, last year learning at the Politihogskolen, the Police University College, and visiting the Oslo Barnahus. I spent time with a Judge of the Oslo District Court which has jurisdiction in all serious civil and criminal cases. Judge Ole Kristen Overberg told me that Norwegian judges are allocated a period of three months every so often to work elsewhere in order to give them broader experience and make them better judges. Ole told me he had most recently elected to work for three months as a prison guard in an Oslo prison. He reflected positively, and even encountered prisoners whom he had sentenced.

Could this ever happen in Scotland?

We must improve custodial climate and conditions, and every other aspect of our systems, to ensure, as best we can, that no other young person is driven to take his or her own life as Katie, William and many others before them have done. Custody should involve care and control. One without the other is not acceptable in the public interest.

The compassion demonstrated by Linda and Stuart Allan might close the gap if injected into every aspect of our relevant systems. Compassion on the part of police, prison officers, prisoners, social workers, ancillary workers and, yes, judges, might take Scotland closer to the sort of civilised society that we can become.