Care, rehabilitation and education is needed to divert children from a future life of crime, it was claimed tonight.
As the Government revealed plans for a new national detention centre, children's charity Barnardos said early intervention can spot young offenders and address the issues in their lives before they spiral out of control.
The 167 bed site, to be opened in north Co Dublin by 2012, will house 12 to 18 year-olds from across the country. The first phase of the complex, at Oberstown in Lusk, will see the transfer of prisoners from St Patrick's Institution in Dublin city, which has been heavily criticised as an inappropriate place to house teenagers who break the law.
Fergus Finlay, Chief Executive of Barnardos, said if the facility is to meet the needs of the children who are detained, as well as the communities to which they are eventually released, its focus should be on care, rehabilitation and education, rather than on punishment.
"Ireland has come under severe criticism, both nationally and internationally, for its treatment of young offenders," said Mr Finlay. "This new facility will play an important function in putting a stop to the practice of detaining children in adult prison due to a shortage of appropriate spaces in juvenile detention centres.
"However, the traditional approach of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted has caused untold emotional hardship both for the young offenders and the victims of their crimes. It will cost tens of millions to build and run this facility - a fraction of that money invested in preventative resources within the community would serve all our interests."
Mr Finlay said a recent study revealed some 83% of children in detention schools have at least one psychiatric disorder, engage in serious criminality and have significant deficits in emotional intelligence and cognitive ability.
"Many of these children have had suicidal tendencies, a significant number have an intellectual disability, and if these needs are not addressed in the new detention school, the anti-social and criminal behaviour which has led to these children being detained in the first place will become the pattern of their adult lives," he added.
"The focus must be on rehabilitation, care and diverting children from a future life of crime."
Minister for Children Brendan Smith said the new build would replace existing outdated detention schools and provide modern, safe and secure accommodation. The site is already owned by the state and is in the same location as three existing children's detention schools, which are managed by the Irish Youth Justice Service.
"It will herald a new departure in the way we can support these children to turn away from crime and to re-integrate into their families and communities," said Mr Smith. "Planning for the development of the new facilities will commence immediately. All stakeholders including staff, unions, and local community will be consulted on an on-going basis during the development process."
Siptu also welcomed the plans, which quashed fears over the future of Finglas Child and Adolescent Centre which will be transferred to the new site.
SIPTU's Health Service Sectoral Organiser, Paul Bell, added: "If we are to interpret the minister's statement correctly, then SIPTU - on behalf of its members at Finglas - will expect a stakeholder role in the review process and will expect membership of the review group."
Read more here.