15th July 2010
In a 2-day special investigation in the Irish Examiner, Jennifer Hough examines how to balance appropriate punishment of young offenders with victims' rights.
Some of the interviewees acknowledge that prevention is preferable and that communities are failing these young people, whilst at the same time calling for more severe punishment of young offenders. IPRT's Dr Ursula Kilkelly and social campaigner Fr Peter McVerry counteract the latter call, arguing instead for better and more constructive use of community sanctions including educational programmes and training.
The special investigation also includes one young man's testimony about his experiences of the youth justice system. He avoided a custodial sentence himself through having a number of people who spoke up for him. "We were all from dysfunctional families, there is always a reason." On St Patrick's Institution he says: "I know a few lads who went there, and haven't been right since."
St Pat's detainees 'are worse off leaving'
Young men who are detained in St Patrick's Institution for 16 to 21-year olds are "lost" and leave it worse off than when they went in.
According to Gareth Noble, who works as a defence solicitor in the Children's Court in Smithfield, once a young person is sent to St Pat's there is no going back. "The situation with St Pat's is thgat once a teenage boy reaches 16 he will be sent there. He could only be on remand for a petty crime, and might later be acquitted. So in theory you could have a young person with no conviction mixing with someone who has committed murder," Mr Noble said.
"In my view, you have lost them once they go to St Pat's. They come out worse off and once you cross into that it is hard to come back."
Although plans have been made for the separate accommodation for the majority of 16 and 17-year olds boys, that under 18-year olds comtinue to be imprisoned in St Pat's breaches international human rights laws. The Irish Penal Reform Trust has consistently called for an immediate end to the detention of children in St Pat's, as has the Ombudsman for Children.
The Inspector of Prisons noted in 2009 that 25% of the juvenile population in St Patrick's are on protection, fearing for their own safety.
Social campaigner Fr Peter McVerry used to visit St Pat's regularly and called it a "total disaster" which must be closed. "You could have 60 young people in there at any one time. It is ironic that these are the most damaged kids in the country, but they are not getting the help they need at the developmental stage of their lives. They have huge amounts of energy but there is virtually nothing to do - or if they do it is hopelessly inadequate."
Young people in St Pat's are particularly vulnerable because they have no independent complaints mechanism. The Ombudsman for Children cannot accept individual complaints from children held in St Pat's and has called for an extension of her remit to to include complaints from boys there.
Chairperson of the Irish Penal Reform Trust, Dr Ursula Kilkelly, youth justice specialist and Senior Lecture at UCC maintains the continuing use of St Pat's for under-18s is a disgrace. "There has got to be some thought into how we get those young people out of there and I don't understand why there is not a plan B to move them out," she said.
[Dr] Kilkelly said plans to build a new campus which will facilitate all young offenders was a long way off. "Whatever happens, there has got to be a plan. Even in 2008 when plans for the new campus were announced we knew there was a chance it would be delayed." [Dr] Kilkelly said the setting for young people in detention was "critical" as to whether it is a constructive experience or institutionalising one.
Source: Irish Examiner