Editorial in The Irish Times 1st February 2010
VARIATIONS IN levels of serious crime, as detailed by the Central Statistics Office, should not take away from wholly positive news regarding young offenders. At last, measures to supervise and rehabilitate troubled juveniles within their own communities and keep them out of prison are having a measurable effect. For the first time in five years, the reported incidence of youth crime showed a decline in 2008.
It has taken a long time to get to this point. More needs to be done to encourage judges to consider non-custodial responses; to develop juvenile liaison and probation services and to invest in educational and social resources within deprived communities. Such an approach will actually save money. It costs more than €2,000 a week to lock up a young person. Helping them to become productive members of society makes both economic and social sense.
For years, prison chaplains and prison visiting committees complained about the crazy situation whereby young offenders were incarcerated with hardened criminals. As a result, prisons became what were described as “finishing schools in criminality”. This did not bring about the changes desired by society, but the official mindset remained obsessed with prisons. The Institute of Criminality at UCD found that more than half of all prison inmates were there for minor offences and were likely to re-offend within four years. That level of recidivism was linked to poverty, illiteracy and a lack of economic opportunity.
The Garda Diversion Programme, which tries to steer young people away from court prosecution, began on a small scale in the 1990s. But funding did not really begin to flow until after the Children’s Act of 2003 took effect. Additional juvenile liaison officers and an improved probation service, linked to responsive health and welfare agencies, allowed intervention at an early stage and helped to promote the rehabilitation of offenders in the community. In 2008, the diversion programme dealt with more than 15,000 children.
Of course the programme was not suitable for all young offenders. But one-in-five offences were alcohol-related and 15 per cent involve road traffic offences. In many of those cases, informal caution by a Garda liaison officer, formal supervision or a court penalty involving community service, were infinitely preferable to imprisonment. The effectiveness of the diversion programme should encourage the Government and its various agencies to continue to support this important initiative.
Read the editorial in The Irish Times here.