State watchdogs criticise youth justice legislation

THE State’s official bodies for human rights and children yesterday rounded on Government plans on youth justice.

Both the Irish Human Rights Commission (IHRC) and the Ombudsman for Children strongly criticised legislation being introduced by Justice Minister Michael McDowell.

The two State watchdogs highlight a number of provisions in the amendments to the Criminal Justice Bill 2004, including:

* The setting of the age of criminal responsibility for serious crimes at 10;

* The introduction of anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOs);

* Linking the ASBO scheme with the Garda Diversion Programme;

The IHRC said the provisions amended the age of criminal responsibility of 12, as set out in the Children Act 2001, lowering it to 10 in cases of serious crimes.

“The proposals for exceptions to the general age of responsibility at 12 are particularly regrettable,” the body said.

It said it was difficult to see how an adult court, particularly the Central Criminal Court, could offer children as young as 10 a fair trial in line with international human rights standards.

The IHRC said it was concerned that ASBOs might be a way of criminalising certain behaviour “by the back door”.

It said there was a “real danger” that gardaí would use them as an alternative to the criminal justice system.

The body was particularly concerned that “naming and shaming” of an ASBO offender in the courts could be an aspect of the enforcement of the order, or even the objective in itself.

The Ombudsman for Children Emily Logan said ASBOs were “likely to create more problems than they solve”. She said children could be punished for omissions or inability of their parents or guardians, which she said was contrary to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Ms Logan said proposals to link the ASBO system with the Garda Diversion Programme meant children who have not committed a crime would be mixing with children engaged in criminal activity.

The IHRC criticised the continuing detention of 16 and 17-year-olds with adults in St Patrick’s Institution.

“The continuing use of St Patrick’s Institution clearly runs counter to human rights standards,” it said.

The body described as “regressive” the abolition of the Inspector of Children Detention Schools, as set out in the Children Act.

“The fact that serious cases of abuses and mistreatment of children in institutional settings have been unveiled in recent years demonstrates the urgency of a robust system of inspections in all State institutions involved in the care of children,” it said.

The IHRC urged giving the Ombudsman for Children this role.

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