An eggs-treme sort of wake-up call

30th April 2010

The Mayo News reported this week on how a 17-year old was given “a wake-up call he needed” by being sent to St Patrick’s Institution for 2 nights. The so-called “Halloween egg thief” (an evil moniker indeed) received the sentence after failing to appear in court – it’s worth noting that his legal representatives had mixed up the dates, not the young person himself.  During the appeal hearing, as related by the Mayo News, he was asked by the Judge whether he had stopped drinking – the boy replied ‘not really’, to which the Judge then suggested that a longer spell in St Pat’s might sort him out.

It could be that the Judge’s words were intended to simply provoke better behaviour in the young person, but this in turn offers us an alarming snapshot of the disconnect between law, policy and a worrying and persistent judicial preference for custody as a punishment.

Section 96 of the Children Act 2001 states clearly that the detention of children should only be a measure of last resort.  It also states that children should be allowed stay in their own homes with their families to the greatest possible extent and should be retained in mainstream education.  This is further supported by the strategy of Irish Youth Justice Service, which aims to focus resources on diverting young people away from  – and not deeper into – the criminal justice system. None of which seems to have been addressed by the judge in this case.

This situation seems to be crying out for a better solution, such as restorative justice options, whereby the young offender would work to compensate the business and community for the €300 worth of damage and 3,000 eggs stolen. This would surely be of more lasting benefit to everyone than the huge waste of public resources involved in transporting the boy up to Dublin (Garda time); processing him at St Pat’s (including assessments, etc.); and accommodating him for two nights in a prison system that is already bursting at the seams.  Any reference to a period of imprisonment as a ‘wake-up call’ runs against all available knowledge of the negative, damaging impact of even a short time in a prison.

This case is one small example of continuing over-use and misuse of imprisonment for young people - the most glaring feature of which is the 1/3 of the juvenile detention population who are on remand.  Using St Pat’s as a ‘wake-up call’ is completely contrary to law and practice, and it is deeply worrying that judges could think like this.

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