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Paul Vallely: Compassion, not cruelty, cuts crime

17 July 2020

The evidence shows that it works, says Paul Vallely

BBC / True Vision East / Erica Jenkin

Kate Silverton (left) interviews a parent at a family club at Oakwood Primary School, in Glasgow, in Panorama: How Scotland cut violent crime, broadcast on BBC1, on Monday

Kate Silverton (left) interviews a parent at a family club at Oakwood Primary School, in Glasgow, in Panorama: How Scotland cut violent crime, broadca...

“I SLEPT in,” was the little boy’s response to the head teacher asking why he was arriving at school at 9.45 a.m. She did not reprimand him. Rather, she almost congratulated him on having got in when he did. Why wasn’t he told off, the teacher was asked by a BBC reporter. Because, almost certainly, no one else in the house had got up, and he had done very well to get out of bed, dress himself, and get into school at all.

Ten years ago, the head of education in Glasgow told teachers that they had to be more nurturing rather than disciplinarian. As a result, the number of children excluded from one school visited by the reporter, Kate Silverton, for Panorama this week, has fallen from 350 a year to just nine temporary exclusions. The phenomenon is reflected all across Scotland, in contrast to England, where school exclusions are rising.

This is part of a wider shift in approach initiated in Scotland, where it has been discovered that a child who is excluded from school before the age of 12 is four times more likely to be in prison within ten years. The change began in 2005, when Scotland was in the vanguard of rising levels of UK knife and gun crime. A Violence Reduction Unit was set up with the aim of introducing tougher policing.

But what the police found, after implementing strategies pioneered in cities in the United States, was that crime was reduced more by offering help and compassion than by short-sharp-shock policing. A team who called themselves the Navigators, made up of ex-prisoners and army veterans, toured hospital wards visiting youths who had just been stabbed — and befriended them to help them break out of the cycle of violence.

Violence, the authorities in Scotland decided, was not best treated as an issue of law and order, but as one of public health. They introduced a programme, Violent Offender Watch, to offer support to young people who were leaving prison. Only half signed up for it, but these reoffended at a consistently lower rate.

Criminology has caught up with theology here. One of the practitioners told the BBC that their approach was based on the idea that “anyone can change if they want to.” Since it was introduced, murders, serious assaults, and youth crime have halved. In hospitals, stabbings have fallen by one quarter.

There may be other factors involved, Susan McVie, Professor of Quantitative Criminology at Edinburgh University, warns. Crime has fallen in other countries over the same period. But the decline is far greater in Scotland. In response, the Government in Westminster has found £35 million to set up violence-reduction units in 18 police authorities in England.

The lesson is that the narrative has to change, the man in charge of the Scottish programme, ex-Chief Superintendent Niven Rennie, says. The idea that people respond better to compassion than cruelty will come as no surprise to anyone who has more than a passing acquaintance with the Gospels. But those who might once have dismissed all this as “soft justice” have been confronted by the evidence that what is at work here is not justice that is soft, but justice that is smart.

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