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Juvenile Crime Re-visited

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Juvenile Crime Re-visited

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Written by Peter McVerry SJ on Sunday, 22 June 2003. Posted in Issue 43 Juvenile Crime: Are Harsher Sentences the Solution?, 2002

Reflection and Analysis on Social and Economic Issues
Issue 43 June 2002

Peter McVerry SJ has worked with homelesss young people for the last 25 years. In this article, he looks again at the problem of juvenile crime.
The problem explodes

A Blight on Many Communities
The recent death of two gardai in a so-called "joyriding" incident focused political and media attention once again on the problem of juvenile crime - for about five days!


For those five days, every TV discussion programme and every radio chat show was debating the issue. How should our society respond to what everyone acknowledged was a horrendous tragedy, the death of two gardai doing their job, the bereavement of two families, caused by two teenagers who allegedly had been treated softly by the courts on
previous occasions? Understandably, in the highly charged emotional context of the killings, there were calls for tougher legislation, longer and mandatory sentences for joyriding, and more detention places. Other voices called for more reflection on the problem, more analysis and more emphasis on prevention. While these two approaches are not mutually exclusive, nevertheless there was in the discussion a tension between the relative importance of both types of response. Before revisiting the arguments, some introductory comments might be useful.

THREAD, a community forum in Darndale, an area of social deprivation in Dublin, asked "why did two gardai have to die before society sat up, took notice and began to ask questions?" In Darndale, as in other areas of Dublin, residents "night after night lie awake to the screech of brakes and exploding petrol tanks of burnt-out cars". "The situation improves "when the Garda initiate programmes like Operation Dochas or Operation Nightowl. Unfortunately, these initiatives in the community are always short-lived"i. "Why", they ask, "is a crisis allowed to develop before anyone takes notice? Why do we have to go from crisis to crisis before anything is done? Why do we have to wait until someone is killed?"i

THREAD expresses the frustration of many community groups in deprived areas who feel that problems are ignored as long as they are largely confined to those deprived areas. It is only when the consequences of those problems, which the local community have to live with day after day, affects the wider community that shock and horror are expressed and action is taken.

Some might feel that the community forum in Darndale is exaggerating. However, the total silence on the issue, from politicians and media, after the initial five days of hand wringing and election-style point scoring, only confirms their frustrations. We have moved on to more important matters. Cars still screech around Darndale. The final sentence of their open letter expresses their fears so accurately: "When condemnation of "joyriding" is no longer the flavour of the month, we will still be left with the same problems and the same danger".

The Government response
The Government response - the public demanded a response - was to announce the setting up of 20 detention places for 14 and 15 year olds in St. Patrick\'s Institution. (St. Patrick\'s Institution is a prison for 16-21 year olds). The juvenile detention centres are full, so more places were needed. A doctor, a psychologist, nurses, professional full-time staff were to be recruited. 10 teachers, including a principal, were to be employed giving a pupil-teacher ratio of two to one.  9 million were being set aside to fund these places. Was this a knee-jerk reaction to assuage the public anger? Or a well thought-out response to a problem that had been seriously reflected upon?

The community in Darndale recognises that "the problem escalates when particular individuals are \'out\' …when these people are picked up and put away, the problem recedes"i. But this is not to say that they are satisfied with the government\'s response. In the light of the government response, their frustrations are perhaps deepened, certainly justified. They point out that "It is unbelievable that Darndale has no full-time School Attendance Officer…that the schools\' psychological service cannot guarantee any further assessments before the end of the school year…that there are insufficient educational supports for our children in school" i.

Few people working with children would support the setting up of 20 detention places in St. Patrick\'s Institution, no matter how many teachers and psychologists will be employed - or perhaps transferred from places like Darndale. The children will be looked after by prison officers, who will receive training in child care. There are many excellent prison officers in St. Patrick\'s Institution, who care greatly for those in their charge. But they are not child care workers and do not wish to become child care workers. And since the first inmates are expected before the end of May, the training that they will receive will be necessarily very short. (Qualified child-care staff normally must take a full-time, three year course). The Social Services Inspectorate is a statutory body whose responsibility it is to inspect residential care facilities for children and to recommend improvements. One of their strongest criticisms is reserved for the use of non-qualified staff to care for these children. For example, in one of their recent reports, "the staffing arrangements for looking after a teenage boy in an unnamed home came in for severe criticism by the Social Services Inspectorate…the report found that no steps had been taken to see if the staff were suitable for the work…the staff were all nurses, mainly psychiatric, and many worked their days off in the special arrangement" (Irish Times report, Saturday 4th May 2002). The criticisms were all taken on board by the Health Board and changes implemented. This intolerance for using non-qualified staff and inappropriate accommodation for some children in need of care contrasts sharply with this proposal to care for other children using unqualified staff and hopelessly inappropriate accommodation. The medical profession might call this acceptance of dual standards for children, "government schizophrenia".

Imprisoning 14 and 15 year old children, (who admittedly have committed serious crimes and may indeed require detention, for their own sake or for the sake of others), in an old, drab, Victorian building, (a long series of reports going back twenty years, including the Government\'s own Whittaker Report, have repeatedly called for it to be closed), is more reminiscent of the 19th century than the 21st - even if the wing on which they are to be accommodated is to be renamed St. Patrick\'s Special School!

Is the response effective?

The Government response is the latest in a series of similar responses, none of which produced any significant reduction in juvenile crime. In the mid-1970s, there was an epidemic of joyriding and handbag snatching in Dublin\'s North Inner City. The intersection of Summerhill and Gardiner St became known as \'Handbag Junction\'. The Diamond - a large playground area between Summerhill and Sean McDermott St - could match Mondello for thrills and spills, most nights of the week. The Government opened Loughan House in Co. Cavan in 1978 as a prison for juveniles, under the age of 16, to be staffed by prison officers. This was subsequently transferred to a purpose-built unit in Lusk, called Trinity House, and the prison staff were replaced by trained staff. The opening of Loughan House saw juvenile crime fall slightly for the next two years (a person locked up cannot commit crime, except within the prison!) But inexorably, juvenile crime began its ascent once again, the demand for more detention spaces continued to increase and Oberstown House was subsequently opened on the same site.

But even this did not dampen the problem. In the early 1980s, another epidemic of joyriding occurred (or rather was reported night after night in the media - for communities like Darndale, the problem was ongoing) and the response was to open Spike Island as a prison, specifically intended for joyriders, primarily from Dublin. This was to be Ireland\'s Alcatraz, instilling fear into those tempted to rob cars. But Alcatraz soon filled up, and the problem abated for a short time. Here we are, in 2002, debating the same old issue; producing the same old solutions; history repeating itself.

No one disputes that some young people are so out of control, and their criminal activities so serious or so frequent, that they must be detained. No one disputes that society has a right to protect itself. Trinity House and Oberstown were set up to meet that need. The staff are trained to meet that need, the programme is devised for that purpose. But Trinity House and Oberstown are sometimes 40% full with young people who have not committed a crime; they are placed there by the High Court because they are a risk to themselves or to others and there is no other place in which they can be safely accommodated. The failure of the Health Boards to provide sufficient secure accommodation for children who need it, but who have not been arrested for criminal activities, has led to the situation where some young people who are convicted on serious criminal charges cannot be accommodated as all the places for them are full. Hence the need for "St. Patrick\'s Special School". These 20 young detainees are being accommodated on B wing, and the need for them to be segregated from the rest of the prison, and the insistence that they have "natural lighting" (provided by skylights in the roof), means that 68 prison places will be removed from the system. The Minister for Justice for the past five years has staked his reputation on the need for more prison places and his commitment to providing them. Despite opening three major new prisons, the Minister insists that yet more places are needed and more will be provided. It makes little sense then to remove 68 places from the system to accommodate 20 children who cannot be accommodated in special schools because the special schools are full of children who should not be there. The knock-on effect will mean that 68 convicted teenagers will be imprisoned in adult prisons, which will be even more detrimental to their development than being in St. Patrick\'s Institution.

The evidence is that providing more and more detention places makes little difference to the safety of the rest of society. Of course, while a person is locked up, society is safe from that person. But the person has, one day, to be released. It is generally accepted that prison is not a positive experience for most prisoners, that if they come out of prison better people than they went in, it is despite the system, not because of it. If people come out of prison more hardened, more learned in the ways of crime, more embittered, with less self-respect and less hope for the future, then society is less safe, not more. Indeed, the media reports on the "joyriding" incident in which the two gardai were tragically killed, referred to a gang, to which the alleged "joyriders" belonged, whose leader had only recently been released from prison. His release allowed the gang to regroup. Society became less safe, not more, as events were to demonstrate.

Two alternative responses

1) The only logical option, for those who wish to respond to juvenile crime with more detention places, is, as Brenda Power in the Sunday Tribune suggested (Sunday 21st April 2002), to detain juveniles for 30 years without possibility of parole! If we took that course of action with all juveniles who commit serious or frequent crime, then society would certainly be a much safer place. The "more prison spaces" approach to crime can work - but only if you follow it to its logical conclusion! But there are two problems with that option; not insurmountable problems, just financial ones!

First it would cost a minimum of  2 million per juvenile. So forget about tax cuts! One could argue, equally logically, that if we were to give such juveniles a cheque for  1 million on condition that they bought a villa in Spain and stayed there, society would be just as safe, but at half the cost. The juveniles might also vote for that one!

The second problem is that the detention centres in which they would be accommodated would be uncontrollable. Why not riot every week, if you have nothing to lose? Who would choose to work in such an environment in which their safety or health would be at risk unless the rewards were extraordinarily high?

The other problem with responding primarily with more detention spaces is that, despite their cost, they do nothing to prevent the current 5 and 6 year olds becoming the out-of-control 15 and 16 year olds in ten years time. Society is standing at the end of a conveyor belt and spending  70,000 per year, per child, to knock those out-of-control youngsters off the conveyor belt and into custody. Would it not make more sense to stand nearer the beginning of the conveyor belt and spend  70,000 per child to prevent them getting to the end of the conveyor belt in the first place?

2) Alternatively,if we wish to reduce the incidence of "joyriding" and other serious forms of juvenile crime, then we must listen to communities like Darndale and others in our cities. They want adequate services for children and families in their areas. What they have are token projects - projects which do great things for their children but can only touch the lives of a small few.

In Ballymun, for example, the Lifestart project has proved its value time and time again. Lifestart is a project where trained persons go regularly to the homes of families with very young children, to support, encourage and help the parents in the difficulties they experience in rearing their children, living on low incomes and in areas with few family supports. Lifestart is working with forty families - there are 20,000 people living in Ballymun! A serious commitment to the development of young people in Ballymun, which would undoubtedly reduce the incidence of juvenile crime in fifteen years time, would require one hundred Lifestart projects in Ballymun alone.

But the promise that juvenile crime will be reduced in fifteen years time will not elect a Minister for Justice in a few weeks time! Opening 20 more spaces in St. Patrick\'s Institution is far more likely to achieve that. The  9 million which will be required over the next two years to pay for those 20 extra places would fund 90 Lifestart projects over that period of time.

It is clear where our current political priorities lie. But the evidence of history, and a little reflection, would suggest that these priorities will not make our society a safer place. We need to invest, not in our prisons, but in our communities.

Thought for the day:

Both drink-driving and speeding cause far more deaths and injuries on our roads each year than "joyriding". Why is there not a similar, and equally justified, outrage at these illegal activities? Could the reason possibly be that "joyriding" is something that "they" do, while drink-driving or speeding is something that we might one day find ourselves doing? Surely not.

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About the Author

Peter McVerry SJ

Peter McVerry SJ

A member of the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice team and an Executive Director of the Peter McVerry Trust, which provides accommodation and care for homeless young people.

We tend to think that law defines what crime is. This makes sense because contemporary legal codes are concerned with marking out the territory where conduct is permissible by specifying the conduct that is outlawed. Yet the earliest bodies of law – consider for example, the Torah or Hammurabi’s Code – are at least as committed to articulating the good as proscribing the bad... Read full editorial

Working Notes is a journal published by the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice. The journal focuses on social, economic and theological analysis of Irish society. It has been produced since 1987.