THE juvenile criminal justice system has two faces. One is hard-faced, belligerent and apathetic. The other is vulnerable, troubled and emotionally damaged.
Sometimes, they cannot be reconciled, but more often than not, they are two sides of the same coin and overlap to such a degree that it is impossible to distinguish between them.
Step into the children’s courts on any given day and this is the young person you will see, or some version of it.
Routinely, the young person is caught up in a subculture of drugs and alcohol, has dropped out of school early and is from a disadvantaged area.
Social workers were probably involved with the family on some level, but now that there are criminal charges, they have stepped back from the situation.
Most of these cases started out with a child in need of nurturing. In its absence of that they needed intervention services from social workers, school and community.
And when they do finally appear the court, it is impossible to tell if the child before you is a teenager crying out for help — or a career criminal in the making.
Social justice campaigner Fr Peter McVerry deals with the most damaged and vulnerable young men in society every day — and consequently those who have become involved in the criminal justice system.
After more than 30 years in the field, drugs and violence have “changed everything,” he says.
They are blighting the lives of young people in certain deprived areas where a “subculture” of criminality prevails, he maintains.
“The two big changes in the lives of young people would be drugs and violence. Young people are getting sucked into it at a very early age in certain deprived areas.
“There is a subculture where petty criminality is the norm and not considered deviant and within that there is a sub-subculture where more serious criminality is the norm.
“And the boundaries between the two are very flexible and that’s the culture young people get sucked into.”
According to Fr McVerry, kids as young as nine or 10 are streetwise and already displaying criminal intent when growing up in this environment.
“They are immersed in a culture where to be taking drugs is the norm. You get lots of young people who are taking hash at nine, pills at 12 or 13 and who are on heroin by 15. Criminals use these kids as couriers — to hand over and collect drugs and they think this is great.
“They are erratic at school and there is no support.”
Fr McVerry says he has seen a “huge upsurge” in the levels of violence in the last few years and puts it directly down to cocaine.
“Drugs are the big problem among the group we deal with — it used to be heroin, now it is everything. Young people are using everything from heroin to cocaine to tablets and hash and that has been a nightmare. It is hopeless and there is no treatment for them.”
Although the cohort Fr McVerry talks about is relatively small in numbers, these are young people that should be of most concern.
“The majority of people who get into the system drop out of it quickly, one or two charges and that’s it. But it is the small number who get caught in the cycle and who become career criminals that we need to worry about.”
Gareth Noble, defence solicitor at Dublin’s Smithfield children’s court, sees them every day.
“Anecdotally I would say about half of the children in court have been involved with the HSE,” he says. “The current thinking within the HSE is that welfare needs are separate to the justice system.
“My viewpoint is that where you have someone who has needs which are not being met, there is a sad inevitability that they are going to come to adverse attention of gardaí.”
This relates in particular to young people living in out of hours services. “One issue is that they present at a hostel or a Garda station and are given a bed for the night but then they have to leave very early the next morning and are left wandering around the streets, these young people are falling through the cracks.”
Fr McVerry sees court and detention as an inevitability for some young people.
“There is nothing you can do about it, there is a very deep sense that they are not in control of their lives. Their lives are determined by other people — you go out robbing, you are going to get caught, and you are going to get locked up for it, that’s life.
“They have no access to social workers while in detention, no formal social work service, very inadequate psychological services — very inadequate compared with their need, anyway.”
Child law specialist Catherine Ghent maintains that while things did improve during the Celtic Tiger years, they are slipping back again.
“I have been working in the area for eight years — things improved and now they are dis-improving radically.”
Ms Ghent says when she started out, things were “horrendous”, and maintains we are going back to those days. “We don’t really have an interest. It is very easy to say let’s look after children and ensure they have justice, but unless you put the systems in place you don’t really mean it.
“We are going back to a lack of places to stay, going back to higher tolerance of children in difficulty and a higher tolerance to the circumstances they are coming from, our shock levels are being raised all the time.”
According to Ms Ghent, the causes behind juvenile crime are not addressed sufficiently.
“There are children appearing in court tomorrow and the problem is people are dealing with the result rather than the cause — whose responsibility is that? It has to be the HSE.”
Youth justice specialist and senior lecturer in the faculty of law at University College Cork, Ursula Kilkelly, agrees the HSE is not taking responsibility for young people before the courts.
According to Ms Kilkelly, under section 77 of the Children’s Act, the HSE can apply to adjourn the proceedings to divert the child away from the criminal justice system on basis of need.
“It would be interesting to see how many orders of this kind have been made. The reality is that many cases before the court have serious welfare issues — they are all welfare at one level, or all began as welfare and that is one of the issues section 77 was supposed to address.
“It was a unique measure designed to act as gateway into the care system out of the criminal system for those who should not be there, but there has been an ongoing reticence by the HSE to attend court or be involved with a child who is in the system,” she says.
“Welfare issues underpin many of the problems which are manifesting themselves in criminal behaviour, this is not to say they should not be punished, or held accountable, but there has to be some recognition that these are children who do not have the capacity to act how they should.”
This dilemma — the balance between care and justice — plays out regularly in the children’s court.
One day in the Smithfield court earlier this year, the father of an out of control 14-year-old girl in voluntary care pleaded she be detained for a week as the HSE could not deal with her. His request was granted.
Fr McVerry can see the merit in this. But of course the problem is, once these young people get out, they are sent back to the same family, the same community and original peer group.
“What can you expect unless you change conditions they are going back in to, they are going to go back to their old behaviour.”
Fr McVerry has a vision of how things could be made better for these young people and lauds early intervention as the key.
“Early intervention means age one. There is a programme called Lifestart in Ballymun which targets 200 families, but 2,000 could use it, there are families which need support but they don’t get it. We could identify the children who will be in trouble when we baptise them.
“We have eight or nine year olds out of control but nothing will happen and by 14 or 15, they will be locked up in Oberstown and it is much too late.
“Most of the kids who are there on a regular basis are there because their personal and social and developmental needs have not been met by family and school.”
The focus of juvenile justice system should be to ensure needs are met, Fr McVerry says.
“But it’s not. The focus of the system is to find you guilty or not guilty and that is totally unsuitable to young people. A young person could have robbed five cars and be found not guilty but will walk out with the same needs as when he came in and nothing is going to be done till the next time he gets caught.”
The campaigning priest believes the age of criminal responsibility should be raised from 12 to at least 15. “These kids should not be prosecuted but they should be put into the care system. The HSE should step in and be responsible and take care of these kids’ needs. Yes, some will still drop through system and need detention, but far fewer. Something has happened for these kids to make behaviour so challenging at 14 or 15.
“Young people are allowed to become bad because of failure of everyone around them — school, family, community.
“Take two kids, one will become CEO of a company, the other will end up in prison, the difference is what has happened to them in between, some kids don’t have a hope.”
Fr McVerry maintains that of this cohort of young people, 80% will go on to the adult system, but that some of those in their mid to late twenties will grow out of crime because they either have a significant other or a child.
“For the first time in their lives, they have a reason not to go to jail. They have someone to make a contribution to. It’s about self esteem and self respect and giving people the possibility that life could be different.
“People don’t grow into crime, they drift into it and some significant event will hopefully stop that drift.”
According to Fr McVerry, there are three key things, all of which need to happen at the same time, which will stop the drift — education, employment and an increased Garda presence.
“If you want to get this small group of kids, and we are talking a couple of hundred kids taking up 80% of the court’s time, education is the key. In deprived areas, the schools are not functioning adequately.
“One area I know of, any parent who has ambitions will send them to school outside the area, so those children who do go to the local school have no motivation. There is low morale and teachers move all the time, so it continually runs down,” he says.
“Then you need almost guaranteed employment at the end. For these kids, their families don’t work, they don’t know anyone who works, so they don’t expect to get a job. And thirdly you need a very heavy Garda presence for a period of time. You have to make it worthwhile for them to work — give them no alternative.”
While all of that is but one man’s vision, Fr McVerry gets “very angry” when he sees all the money that was pumped into the banks. “If I had suggested three years ago we invest €20 million in drug treatment or intervention services I would have been laughed at. The money is there, it’s not the issue — it is political priority, these people are not a political priority.”
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