I wonder if you stay in touch with people you were at school with? Frankly, the very idea of school reunions sends me running to the hills in a cold sweat, but in today’s digitally shrunken world it is relatively easy to keep in touch at whatever level you wish, so I have a chat with some of them from time to time. Shame about the really embarrassing old photos which keep getting posted and seen by people you would rather not, but can’t be helped I suppose.
Recently I was reflecting on two very different former alumni, one astonishingly bright and talented who breezed their way through school and was head of everything, and the other rebellious, always in trouble and instantly written off by everyone as destined for incarceration or an early grave. If you had asked anyone at the time what they expected to happen to these two I am certain that one would be expected to have a shining path full of academic success, achievement and prosperity and the other a downward slide into failure and unhappiness. In fact, the reverse proved to be the case. The high-flyer crashed out of university, went through a string of failed relationships and occupations, and has found themselves in a very difficult personal place. The pariah, however, was recently honoured in the New Year’s list for a lifetime’s dedication to helping the social alienated and currently heads up an NGO offering a lifeline to thousands.
I guess it is easy to write such an example off as an exception proving the rule, a rare ‘rags to riches’ epiphany in an otherwise harsh reality, but I suspect, in actual fact, it is a more common story.
Sometimes we judge people based on external trappings without ever understanding the character of the individual; we see this in the work we do at Apex all the time. Despite a difficult start in life, or some poor decisions, people do change as we see, not only in our experience, but in the overwhelming research which shows that most people who break the law in early life do not go on to do so in later life. Most will literally either grow out of it or find something which works better for them, and re-offending data bears this out. This is why it is vital that we do not take offences and turn them into life sentences by branding people as ne’er-do-wells and assigning them to the “failed bin” of life.
The harder we make it for people to make that change, the fewer opportunities they will have to make a go of things and surprise us. We must concentrate on a person’s assets and what they need to thrive; if we do so everyone wins, whereas if we concentrate on retribution and labelling, everybody loses.
For years, the rhetoric around justice in Scotland has been about prevention but the practice has more often been focused on punishments. Isn’t it time we started to turn high sounding ideals and overwhelming research evidence into both policy and practice, and concentrated on investing in people and their wellbeing?