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Intensive support key to tackling repeat low-level offenders

An innovative, problem-solving approach to dealing with repeat offenders in Aberdeen Sheriff Court shows promise.

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Addressing complex needs

The Aberdeen Problem-Solving Approach (PSA) aims to reduce the use of custodial sentences, and cut reoffending, by addressing the underlying problems linked with persistent offending.

An independent review of the initiative – commissioned by the Scottish Government and carried out by Ipsos MORI Scotland and the University of Stirling/Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research – found that it “shows promise”.  It recommends that other areas of Scotland consider setting up similar initiatives.

While some specialist courts focus on a particular type of crime or problem, such as domestic abuse or drug use, the Aberdeen PSA is the first of its kind in Scotland to specialise in women and young men with multiple complex needs and a history of frequent low-level offending.

Instead of being sent to prison, participants are given a deferred sentence while they engage with social workers and support workers to address the underlying problems linked to their offending. They also return to court regularly to have their progress reviewed by a Sheriff, who provides praise, warnings and encouragement as appropriate.

The PSA in operation

The main features of the approach are:

  • PSA reviews take place between 9.30 and 10.00am (on the two to three days a week on which they were held) in a small room in a part of the court rarely accessed by the public. The only attendees are those participating in the proceedings.
  • The physical layout and format of the court in which the PSA is held is moderately formal and traditional. However, the communication between people within PSA court hearings is considered less formal and more individualised and interactive than ‘standard’ court hearings.
  • At each review, the sheriff takes into consideration a participant’s compliance with the PSA plan and any evidence of offending and decides to: continue the SDS; end the SDS and admonish the participant; or impose an alternative sentence (usually custodial).
  • PSA participants can still access social work support (and support from other services they have been linked up with such as addiction support) on a voluntary basis following exit from the PSA – and are encouraged to do so.


The researchers, Jane Eunson, Hannah Graham, Margaret Malloch, Gill McIvor and Lorraine Murray, found that overall, professionals were very positive about the approach – but reported that it was less successful for people with more entrenched problems and those who were not yet ready to change.

The report highlights the positive outcomes reported by participants – and backed up by professionals – including reductions in reoffending and substance use, and improvements in mental health and wellbeing, social skills and relationships, and housing situations. The two graphics below summarise these outcomes for women and men.


Dr Hannah Graham, Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Stirling, summarised the evaluation findings to date: 

This problem-solving justice approach works with people with complex needs who commit frequent low-level crimes.
The data shows 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.
These people are in and out of court, often being given short prison sentences, without the underlying issues associated with their crimes being addressed. This approach seeks to do that – work collaboratively with them to address the issues contributing to repetitive cycles of crime and punishment, so that they can move on with their lives.
Our review found the Aberdeen problem-solving approach is working well, its emerging outcomes are promising and other parts of Scotland should consider following its lead.

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