28 January 2014
I have a good deal to say but I will try to contain myself.
I welcome the Minister, who has laid down a comprehensive statement on youth policy, which she had hoped to do in December. It is great that this is all together and that the Minister used the House to do this. The Minister mentioned that we are improving our data, but I remain concerned at the lack of data in the area, a point to which I will return. This particularly applies to juvenile offenders and children coming into contact with the criminal justice system. Through an analysis of various reports compiled by the Association for Criminal Justice Research and Development and a number of significant academic studies by the likes of Sinead McPhillips, Dr. Ursula Kilkelly and Dr. Jennifer Hayes, three key risk factors associated with children who became involved in criminal behaviour have been identified. As the Minister knows, these are family background, educational disadvantage characterised by poor literacy skills and low levels of academic achievement, and personal and familial factors such as alcohol and drug misuse, intergenerational crime and mental health problems. The studies have categorised the factors for us but it is not the understanding of the majority of the public, who are confronted daily with media reports and headlines about violent youth offenders and delinquent youths who are out of control. In the absence of political and media discourse to the contrary, it is understandable that they want to see zero tolerance and tough-on-crime type approaches. That is why the Minister’s intervention is important. I support her understanding and her moves to promote prevention and early intervention.
I commend the work of so many of the agencies involved in the delivery of juvenile justice policy in Ireland, such as An Garda Síochána, particularly its Garda youth diversion projects, the dedicated young persons’ probation division of the Probation Service, the Courts Service, and the Irish Prison Service, as long as it still has 17-year-old children detained in St. Patrick’s Institution. I would like to make special mention of the Irish Youth Justice Service, IYJS, which has been leading and driving reform in the area of youth justice since its creation in 2005. It has made important strides and shows the importance of Departments working together, as the Minister outlined.
It is a real missed opportunity that a centralised data and research department has not been established in the IYJS. We need to co-ordinate inter-agency research between the agencies involved in the delivery of juvenile justice and map the trajectory of the child through the criminal justice system. Every child has an individual story but we mostly get to read these in child death reports and other significant reports. We need to collect the data earlier. We also need to identify divergences between the policy and legal framework of youth justice and its implementation, administration and practice.
I would like to personally congratulate the Minister on a number of successes and advances in youth justice policy under her stewardship. In particular, I welcome the decision on St. Patrick’s Institution and today’s update on bringing the detention centres together. It has been long promised, but the Minister has done it and I thank her for it. We need a unified approach and I am happy to hear that a new head of the campus has been appointed. I look forward to the opportunity to support the legislation brought to the House. There are significant challenges in respect of the campus but I will support the Minister. In the interim, since December 2013, 17 year olds are being remanded to Wheatfield Prison. I note specific concerns raised by the Irish Penal Reform Trust in respect of 18 to 21 year olds, and obviously any 17 year olds detained there, that Wheatfield is often overcrowded and does not have adequate education and training capacity for its inmates. The focus for our young adult prison population must be on rehabilitation and not simply containment. I remain concerned about the interim period and how we are serving these young people.
I raise my concern over the lack of sufficient special care and protection places available to children with severe emotional and behavioural difficulties. I raised the point in November when we debated the Child and Family Agency Bill. From a juvenile justice policy perspective, my concern echoes that articulated by Judge Ann Ryan, who until recently presided over the Children’s Court in Smithfield. She has spoken of her frustration at the lack of HSE special care and protection places available to children, citing a correlation between the failure of the State to appropriately deal with these acutely vulnerable children and the likelihood that many will find themselves before the children’s courts facing criminal charges.
I remain concerned about this. For example, a HIQA report was published and the response was to close the centre, yet there are not enough places for the children who are vulnerable.
I refer to children who are remanded in custody. The most recent data available from the IYJS are from 2008 and show that of the 111 children detained on remand in children detention schools, only 44% went on to be sentenced to detention on conviction. That raises a twofold concern – first, that detention as a last resort requirement, the principle underlying the Children Act, was not being adequately embraced by judges at the pre-trial stage and, second, that there was an urgent need to introduce a formal system of bail support to help children to manage their bail conditions, thus helping to reduce the number being placed in detention on remand. Unfortunately, the pilot scheme mooted in 2008 in Young People on Remand: The National Children’s Research Strategy Series to offer bail support services for vulnerable children who ceme before the Children Court in Dublin and Limerick failed to materialise owing to insufficient resources. Will the Minister provide the House with the figures in this regard for the past few years? I would be interested in seeing and trying to understand them. I fear the position has not improved much from what I hear anecdotally. Will the Minister consider revisiting the bail support pilot scheme?
I refer to the issue of training. Staff and personnel engaged in the formulation and delivery of youth justice policy should be trained in the provisions of the Children Act. The Committee on the Rights of the Child made a recommendation to this effect in 2006. An advanced diploma in juvenile justice is being run by the King’s Inns. The course is attended by a great mix of professionals from a wide variety of disciplinary backgrounds, including legal professionals, juvenile liaison officers, prison officers, detention centre staff and the IYJS. Robust, specialist training such as this needs to be rolled out on a systematic basis and attendance supported by employers such as the State.
I also raise the issue of the age of criminal responsibility. The concluding observations of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child expressed concern about the age of criminal responsibility being ten years under the Criminal Justice Act 2006. The Minister has submitted a consolidated report to the committee. Has she had a communication from the committee? Will Ireland consider this issue before it appears before the committee?
On Second Stage of the Courts and Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill in March last year I alerted the Minister for Justice and Equality to my concern about routine breaches of the Children Act in the Dublin Children Court. Examples include the court appointed registrar calling the name of the child in the public waiting room, the former practice of District Courts including YP, meaning “young person”, beside the child’s name on the court list and the presence of Gardaí and legal representatives unrelated to the specific case in the court which is mandated to sit in camera. The Minister said he would write to the Courts Service and I await a response. I raise the issue in this debate because we need to consider practical remedies to ensure the Children Act is implemented in the spirit intended by the then Minister and the Houses of the Oireachtas.