The Irish Juvenile Justice Alliance has today criticised Justice Minister Michael McDowell's plan to impose fines of up to €400 on children and young people charged with minor offences, saying that the scheme contradicts the principles and provisions of the Children Act, 2001.
The Irish Juvenile Justice Alliance (IJJA) is a coalition working to reform the juvenile justice system. The IJJA comprises the Children's Rights Alliance, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice and the Irish Penal Reform Trust, along with professional workers, academics, human rights activists and concerned individuals.
According to a report in yesterday's Irish Examiner, the Minister is considering a scheme that will see fixed penalty notices sent directly to children's parents as part of the new Criminal Justice Bill to be published next month. The Juvenile Justice Alliance has challenged this initiative as being in contravention of the principles and provisions of the Children Act, 2001. The Act, which is designed to provide a modern statutory framework for the Irish juvenile justice system, remains largely unimplemented three years after its passage by the Oireachtas.
"The Minister's latest initiative runs contrary to Part 4 of the Children Act, which provides for the diversion of all first time offenders who commit minor offences away from the criminal process through the successful Garda Diversion Programme," said Dr. Ursula Kilkelly of the Irish Penal Reform Trust. "His proposal also runs contrary to the main approach of the Act, which is designed to help families and young people find their own solutions to the young person's offending behaviour through family conferencing and the development of court directed action plans."
The Minister's statement that "fixed penalties could have a very good effect" because "if a 17-year-old receives a letter at home all hell will break loose" was strongly disputed by the IJJA. "Rather than supporting the many positive and constructive processes provided for in the Children Act, the Minister's proposals will encourage conflict, rather than problem solving, between children and their parents. This is unhelpful, unconstructive and fails to address the problems at the centre of the young person's offending behaviour," said Aisling Reidy of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties. "The Minister misses the point that it is not the purpose of a criminal justice system to pit parents against their children and create family disputes. Where the family is to be involved in addressing the behaviour of children of that family, it should be in a constructive manner."
The IJJA is also concerned about the impact of imposing fixed fines on families of low income, stating that the plan would entrench a two-tiered, economically discriminatory approach to youth justice where the children of families with adequate financial means would be able to avoid court by paying a fine, while children from families on low incomes would not.
The IJJA also pointed out that as a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which applies to all children and young people under the age of eighteen, Ireland is obliged to ensure that "in all actions concerning children.. the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration". Furthermore, under the Convention every child or young person accused of a crime has a right to be treated in a manner which promotes his or her sense of dignity and worth, which reinforces respect for the human rights of others, and which will help the child assume a constructive role in society. The Alliance says it is hard to see how the Minister's proposal meets the requirements of the Convention.
Said Maria Corbett of Children's Rights Alliance, "If the Minister truly wants to take positive action on juvenile offending, he should be working to fully implement and fully resource the provisions of the Children Act, 2001. Anything less is simply an unnecessary distraction from the work to develop and implement real and effective responses."