DECADES have passed since I was at primary school, but I remember clearly how pupils were treated as “remedial” if they had difficulty in reading, writing, counting or speech. Children were put in special classes and the social stigma from such labelling was writ large.

We now understand dyslexia or dyscalculia and how people’s brains process words and numbers in different ways. Strategies and tools can be put in place to overcome learning challenges. We now treat the cause instead of managing symptoms.

When it comes to young people, how much does our criminal justice system understand and treat the causes of offending? For a long time, the default position was to lock people up, watch them re-offend on release and repeat the punishment cycle. What makes people self-destruct?

Iain Smith is a criminal defence solicitor in Livingston who has been pioneering and campaigning for a childhood trauma approach within the Scottish criminal justice system. This approach – also known as adverse childhood experience (ACE) – seeks to understand what happened to people; what put them on a destructive path.

As Iain explained: “Without understanding the impact adversity and trauma has on the developing brain, we fail to see when a person is struggling, stigmatise and label them by a focus on poor outcomes rather than what led them to that outcome.

“My hope is the realisation of the terrible consequences for many individuals who were abused, neglected or suffered during their upbringing will lead to a desire to help, understand and heal rather than to punish, marginalise and humiliate.”

I asked Iain for examples of how a focus on childhood trauma worked in his legal practice.

One man had been sexually abused when he was young. He became angry in his early teens and was regarded by teachers, friends, family and those in authority as a “bad yin”. He hated himself and made it easy for others to hate him.

Iain said: “Seeing his pain and anger, watching him destruct and self-medicate on drugs and alcohol, I knew his tough surface was a veneer to hide something horrific. I allowed him to blow off steam, swear at me, fail and repeat. I never judged him. I remained his lawyer and a listening ear.

“Without warning he revealed to me his nightmarish childhood. His shame, anger, self-loathing and pain all unravelled. I had no magic cure – I could only offer being there, listening and empathy. I referred him to others to help with his past.

“There is no quick fix, but he knows I’m there and understand. I watch his confidence, self-respect, respect for others, desire to trust and be trusted grow. His rate of offending is diminishing. Most remarkable of all is how the judge no longer sneers or looks down on him. The judge knows of this trauma.”

Understanding ACE for Iain isn’t about bleeding-heart justice or excuses. No one likes to talk about the real causes of crime. Many consider drugs and alcohol misuse as the key, yet in Iain’s experience, for those crippled by trauma such substances are people’s solution to pain. We need to get to the root of the pain and help people heal.

Iain gives me an example of a case from last week. The client was charged with drink-driving but had never been in any trouble before. He said: “I asked about his relationship with alcohol. At that point he ‘confessed’ to having a serious addiction despite his wealth and middle-class upbringing. Trauma is not just the enemy of poverty.

“His father died when he was young, and he dealt with the upset and unresolved bereavement by intoxication. He is now referred to a therapist who will deal with the real issue – not his problematic alcohol use but his unresolved trauma.”

The good news is the Scottish Sentencing Council has drafted new guidelines on sentencing for young people up to 25 that recognise the role of understanding ACE. Lady Dorrian, the Lord Justice Clerk, sets out in her introduction to the draft guidelines on sentencing: “A more individualistic approach is necessary and highlights the need to take into account factors common to many young people who commit offences, including adverse childhood experiences such as trauma or bereavement.”

Few Scots lawyers are adopting ACE as an approach. But Iain along with like-minded lawyers – including Melissa Rutherford, Nadine Martin and Tony Bone – have created a new group to encourage awareness of trauma across the legal profession: @TraumaAwareLaw.

Time will tell if we can change our largely punitive, bleak and uncaring criminal justice system to one that can show compassion and mercy to people who’ve been put on the wrong path from childhood trauma.