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Why the Juvenile Justice System Fails Young People

21st January 2004

Fr Peter McVerry, SJ went to work in Dublin's Inner City in 1974, where he began working with young marginalised people. He opened a hostel for homeless young people in 1979 and subsequently developed the Arrupe Society for Homeless Young People. In almost thirty years of working with homeless young people, he believes that the problem is now worse than ever before.

Said Fr McVerry, "Young people who become involved in regular criminal activity are, in my experience, young people with major unmet needs - personal, interpersonal emotional and developmental needs, which have not been adequately met by their families, their schools, their community. Many also suffer from childhood traumatic experiences which have not been healed. The focus then, in responding to their criminal behaviour, is to provide services and opportunities for those unmet needs to be - belatedly - met."

"The criminal justice system is not the appropriate system to meet these needs. The objective of the criminal justice system is to decide on the innocence or guilt of a person in relation to specific offences and, if found guilty, to impose a suitable penalty. Young people see the Criminal Justice System as a game, with its own rules. If you win the game, the Criminal Justice System has no further role to play and you leave with your needs still unmet. Only if you lose the game (which you usually do) do the needs of the young person come into play - along with other factors which the Criminal Justice System considers, such as the need for deterrence, the need for punishment, and the need to protect society. "

"It would be preferable if the age of criminal responsibility were raised to 15, and the social and community services were given the resources and appropriate staff to provide for the needs of young people in the community."

"Our society, and the drafters of the Criminal Justice Act 2001, see the parents of these children as the problem. My philosophy is that we should see the parents as the solution. Very few parents are deliberately uncaring towards their children. Some have personal problems with which they are not coping very well.  Some need professional help for their children. Some need support of varying kinds - but are not getting it. If we provide the support which the parents of these children need, then we would do much to reduce the level of juvenile crime."

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