A Structured Deferred Sentence (SDS) is an interim disposal option established at the Hamilton and Lanark Sheriff Courts for 16-21 year olds who are not suitable for remittance back to the Children’s Hearings System.

We spoke with Lindsay Ryan, Justice Team Leader, about the SDS project which is expanding after a successful pilot in 2018. With funding from a central government grant, SDS is now offered to young people aged 16-21 from South Lanarkshire and plans are in place to implement it within Airdrie Sheriff Court.                                                            

Origins of SDS

In 2017, South Lanarkshire Justice Services (SLJS) recognised that the traditional Community Payback Order (CPO) for young people failed to reduce reoffending as it did not meet their needs or adequately address any underlying issues. Not only did it not address the violent and antisocial behaviour of service users but many of them also reported deprivation whilst on the CPO.

In recognition of this, SLJS set up the SDS as part of South Lanarkshire’s Whole System Approach (WSA). The design of the SDS draws on evidence provided by Robinson, Leishman, and Lightowler (2017) who found that young people who are looked after or formerly looked after and accommodated are over-represented in the justice system. Thus, the SDS provides intensive social work support to address any underlying problems holistically.  

How SDS work

The eligibility criteria for a young person to be eligible for an SDS are:

  1. Being prosecuted on summary complaint in an applicable court
  2. A South/North Lanarkshire Council permanent resident aged 16-21
  3. Not being suitable for remittal to the Children’s Hearing System for disposal
  4. Established patterns of current and previous offending histories (lack of previous convictions or pending breaches is not an automatic exclusion indicator for the Structured Sentencing Court for Young People)
  5. Not on existing Community Payback Order with supervision. A person on Community Payback Order with unpaid hours is not excluded
  6. Being assessed by social workers as a medium to high risk in relation to needs/reoffending/custody rating using specialised risk assessment tools
  7. Being motivated to address their offending behaviour and possibly benefitting from the Structured Sentencing Court for Young People with its progress reviews

Once a young person is eligible, they are allocated to a social worker who supports them by directly addressing their issues with involvement in offending behaviours, engaging in individual work with them, and referring them to agencies and services that could support their individual needs such as Aspire, South Lanarkshire’s in-house vocational development programme. Before this occurs, appropriate risk and needs assessment tools are used to formulate a tailored action plan that meets their individual needs. The plan generally lasts for three to six months whereby their case is deferred so that the young person can improve their overall wellbeing and mental health as well as gain support with their employability, skills, and education.

The young person’s progress is initially reviewed after four weeks by reports and recommendations being provided to the Sheriff. Thereafter, reviews will take place every eight weeks but can be scheduled sooner if the service user is struggling with the action plan. Where a young person engages with the action plan during the period of deferment, the sheriff will consider this when making their final disposal which could be that the young person is admonished.

Due to the impact of the pandemic, there were occasions when young people had their plans extended, and to reduce footfall in the Court some reviews were done by solely providing reports to the Sheriff instead of the young person having to attend in person. As they begin to recover from the pandemic, face to face reviews are commonplace again. Previously South Lanarkshire had a dedicated Court day along with two dedicated Sheriffs who had been part of the initiative from the outset, currently one remains and another Sheriff has been identified. The court continues to sit on a dedicated day but is incorporated with other business as opposed to a stand-alone Court. Despite these changes, the project is still operating successfully and there have been no detrimental effects on the young people.

Progress of SDS

Between April and December 2018, 21 young people engaged in the SDS pilot. Apart from the ten young people who were still engaging in the project, eight young people had received complete admonishment upon completion and two were removed due to non-engagement. The evaluation, carried out by the University of the West of Scotland, was positive and stated that a welfare-led approach was at the heart of the pilot’s success. Service users specifically praised the social workers for helping them to address their underlying problems.

In general, 90% of young people who engaged with the pilot did not re-offend during their SDS. The pilot also had an 86% completion rate which is significantly higher than the CPO for young people. By shifting the focus of the criminal justice system from punishment to reducing re-offending, the SDS has kept in line with the Whole System Approach to young people who have offended in Scotland.

A more recent evaluation has yet to be commissioned however, it is apparent that by addressing service users’ welfare needs, the SDS continues to improve the outcomes for young people. Ultimately, the project highlights how community-based disposals are more successful at reducing re-offending than formal procedures.


This case-study was compiled by Michael Farinu in 2019 and updated by Maysa Clam in 2022

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