Original article by Carol Coulter appeared in The Irish Times on 23rd September, 2010.
All the evidence demonstrates that investing in crime prevention and early intervention makes far more social and economic sense than throwing money at a penal system, according to a group of NGOs involved with young people and penal reform.
The Irish Penal Reform Trust, Barnardos and the Irish Association of Young People in Care (AYPIC) launched a document making these arguments at a conference in Dublin yesterday.
“We are calling for a radical shift in how we respond to crime, moving away from an approach centred on punishment to one which is centred on evidence-led strategies to preventing offending in the first place," said Liam Herrick, director of the IPRT.
"The good news from Irish and international research is that a shift in dealing with crime at its root causes will not only be more effective, but it will also be cheaper and will contribute to tackling social injustice and building better communities," he said.
"Government must adopt a more cohesive approach to tackling inequalities in access to health, education and protection services for children living in disadvantage," said Norah Gibbons, director of advocacy in Barnardos.
Jennifer Gargan, director of IAYPIC, said that young people in care are more likely to experience homelessness, addictions, unemployment, mental health issues and the criminal justice system. There should be a statutory provision for aftercare services for these young people to reduce these risk factors, and to ensure they get the same life chances as their peers in the general population, she said.
Dr Paul O'Mahony of Trinity College said that since the late 1970s the theme of commentary on crime had been its link with social deprivation and various projects had been set up to address the problem.
“Unfortunately these projected have been funded in a context in which the underlying inequality of Irish society has continued to grow," he said.
"The emphasis has not been on sharing more equitably across all classes but on improving the lot of the deprived without damaging the benefits of the more privileged. Irish politics seems to have embraced simplistic theories that exaggerate the role of deprivation in crime and disregard the key issue of inequality. The mindset that equates crime with deprivation helps maintain the system's almost total blindness to the very numerous and damaging crimes of its privileged members."
Pat Dolan of the Child and Family Research Centre in NUI Galway said that we should start thinking in a different way about youth crime and its prevention. "Just as youth have the capacity to be leaders in a negative way, they can also be leaders in a positive way," he said.
There were many examples where youths who had been involved in targeting older people, the disabled or gay people had given support to such groups when given the opportunity to do so.
Lesley McAra of the University of Edinburgh warned against a policy of targeting "at risk" children at an early age, as this could result in false positives and stigmatisation.
A project from Edinburgh University found that the majority have those who were persistent youth offenders had not been picked up by social services or noticed by police when younger.
Critical moment in offending for those between the ages of 13 and 15 were truancy or exclusion from school and increased adversarial contact with the police, and these needed to be addressed by outreach services, school inclusion and diversionary policies within the youth justice system.