A last resort for young offenders?

3rd March 2010

Young people behind barsRecent reports of the decline in youth offending are very welcome as it would appear that efforts to divert young people away from offending are having positive effect. The Garda Diversion Programme, which aims to divert first-time offenders from further offending by the use of a caution and supervision by a specially trained Garda (a Juvenile Liaison Officer) is particularly commendable in this respect. Similarly, a pilot project in Dublin which saw 16 young offenders - some of whom had 35 convictions - receive one-to-one case management by individual Gardaí, has seen a 64% drop in offence rates.

At the other end of the scale, the number of children spending time in detention is also falling. This is especially welcome given the findings of recent research that 60% of those under 20 years who spend time in prison are back behind bars within four years of their release:

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According to the Children Act 2001, detention should be used as a measure of last resort, and an increasing range of community-based sanctions is now available to ensure the implementation of this principle. Despite this progress, however, concerns remain about the use of detention for children, and in particular the fact that one third of all under 18s in detention (in St Patrick’s Institution and similarly in the Children Detention Schools) are on remand.

Of great concern is that of those detained on remand in the Children Detention Schools in 2008, less than half of those young people (44%) went on to be sentenced to detention on conviction. This suggests two things: first, the requirement that detention is a last resort is not yet impacting on the decisions of the courts pre-trial, notwithstanding that the Act requires all courts dealing with children charged with an offence to have regard to it.

"...of those detained on remand in the Children Detention Schools in 2008, less than half (44%) went on to be sentenced to detention..."

The second and related concern is that there is an urgent need to introduce formal systems of bail support to help young people meet their bail conditions and to reduce the number of children placed in detention on remand. If detention is to be a last resort for children, greater efforts must be made to reduce the use of detention for children at all stages.

Guest blogger: Dr Ursula Kilkelly, Chairperson, Irish Penal Reform Trust and Senior Lecturer, University College Cork.

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