Shifting from punishment towards care
Child detention:The limestone facade of the Children’s Court in Smithfield, Dublin, resembles a memorial to neglected youth. It bears hundreds of names, each one crudely etched into it by a child passing through the youth justice system.
Alongside the names sit territorial allegiances, “west Finglas” reads one. Perhaps it is not surprising that an area that is sometimes associated with anti-social behaviour would be represented here, but then there is a depressing predictability about the type of children who go through the system and end up in detention.
“The vast majority of kids in the detention centres come from the two lowest socio-economic groupings,” says Pat Doyle, chief executive of the Peter McVerry Trust, a homeless support organisation. His work brings him into regular contact with former residents of child detention facilities and in his experience “they all share all the wrong common denominators”.
Typically they will have grown up in a deprived area, left school between 12 and 14 with little prospect of employment, and got involved in drug dealing or petty crime. “It’s not rocket science,” identifying children susceptible to criminal behaviour, Doyle says, “but it keeps coming around.” They drift out of school and into alcohol, drugs, and antisocial behaviour before inevitably coming into contact with the justice system.
Traditionally Ireland has pursued quite a punitive approach to child discipline, according to Liam Herrick, executive director of the Irish Penal Reform Trust. But the Children Act 2001 marked an attempt to shift the emphasis away from punishment towards care.
As an alternative to custodial sentences the Act introduced the Garda diversion programme to deal with young people between 10 and 18 who accept responsibility for their offences. The programme allows gardaí to issue cautions and sometimes enrol the offending young person on a course of study or training.
The more nuanced measures have met with some success. As Herrick points out, the number of young people in detention has remained steady, while the population of adult prisons continues to rise.
When a court does sentence a child to detention, they will be sent to the 66-acre Oberstown site in north Co Dublin, which comprises the State’s three child detention schools, Oberstown Boys School, Oberstown Girls School and Trinity House. At one point these were independent institutions but they now operate as a single entity under the aegis of the Irish Youth Justice System, an office of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs.
The centres detain girls up to the age of 18 and boys up to 17, with a total of 52 available spaces. Unlike adult prisons, overcrowding is not a problem: each child has an individual cell.