Closer educational targeting vital to reducing crime rates


ANALYSIS:Geographic realities must play a part in decisions on resources in our education system, writes CONOR LALLY

A FEW years ago, when writing of the demise of a leading gang member who had himself murdered people, I interviewed one of his relatives.

Usually in these situations, the person at the end of the phone is the mother, sister or partner of the gang member who has just been shot. Sometimes they are in tears, angry or shouting. They are always protesting the innocence of their just-deceased loved one.

They often phone to complain about coverage of the murder while members of the Garda Technical Bureau are still crawling around outside their home looking for rounds of ammunition from the killer’s gun.

This time it was different. The caller was a man and he was not ringing to complain. He had read the coverage about his slain relative and he wanted to talk about it.

We met up for what was perhaps one of the most insightful off-the-record interviews I have conducted in almost 10 years of covering crime in Ireland. He said he accepted his just-murdered family member was a serious gangland criminal. But he wanted to explain where it had all gone wrong.

It had started when the dead man had been diagnosed with a learning difficulty while still in primary school – a problem the school did not seem equipped to deal with. As he fell further behind he began mitching from class. When challenged about it by the teaching staff he lashed out, on one occasion physically. This led to his expulsion. “Then he just started hanging around the area at bonfires, drinking cans, robbing cars,” recalled the relative.

The wider family was functional, very much so in fact. Though living in one of the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods in Ireland, all of his siblings completed their second-level education, and all bar one had gone on to third level. But from the time the problem child dropped out of school, the family lost control of him. He was effectively gone from them – and was quickly immersed in a life of crime.

Stealing cars in his early teens escalated to ram-raiding stolen vehicles into petrol station shops in the early hours to rifle them for cigarettes and drugs. As the crimes got bigger he was arrested, convicted and spent time in prison. When he came out of Mountjoy he began drug-dealing, and in an effort to establish himself in that competitive world he used guns to threaten his rivals and those who owed him money. His house was shot at and he shot up others – houses and people – until finally he lost his life to gun violence.

His relative, a professional man, was utterly convinced that if the dead man had not left school early, he would never have become involved in crime.

Last week, as part of The Irish Times series on crime, we interviewed a burglar called Ronny. His was a life of drug and alcohol addiction funded by petty crime, including burglary. He too told a story of falling through the cracks while still in primary school and, without the structure offered by education, of descending into a life that had become increasingly chaotic every year since then.

On the concluding day of the series yesterday, a study by the Irish Association for the Study of Delinquency was briefly quoted. It is worth expanding on that here.

Of the 50 young people before the Children’s Court surveyed in the 2005 research paper, 20 were known to gardaí by the time they were 12. In the cases of 34 of the children studied, information was available about their experience in the education system. None had completed the Leaving Cert and just four had completed the Junior Cert.

Of the 34 children whose school records were available, nine had been expelled from or had dropped out of the education system before completing primary school. Of these, all bar one were locked up in detention schools or in St Patrick’s Institution for Young Offenders (in the Mountjoy Prison campus in Dublin) when the researcher checked on them in 2004. Of the remaining 25 children, 19 did not complete their Junior Cert and of these, nine were in detention schools or St Patrick’s Institution when traced in 2004.

The researcher, Sinead McPhilips, found when the at-risk children were given access to school tuition outside the mainstream system – such as with the Youthreach programme or in classrooms at St Patrick’s Institution for Young Offenders – they “benefited considerably from smaller class sizes, one-to-one tuition, and intensive literacy and numeracy” teaching. She added: “This study supports the view that early school-leaving is a significant factor in offending behaviour by young people. This suggests that interventions aimed at keeping young people at risk of educational disadvantage in school could be effective in reducing the numbers entering the youth justice system.”

For many at-risk young people, the turning point in their lives often comes when they come into contact with drugs. This can lead to a loss of interest in other areas – such as sport and hobbies – and a gradual deterioration in performance or attendance at school.

Drug-taking also leads young people into the company of others taking drugs, which can effectively result in clusters of youths in geographic areas falling away from peers who might positively influence them.

The crime series in The Irish Times has used a new set of data from the All-Island Research Observatory (Airo) at NUI Maynooth, based on Central Statistics Office (CSO) figures, which for the first time breaks down the data for recorded crime on a per Garda station basis. The weakness of the figures is that they did not come with a per capita measurement. And, like all official crime statistics, they capture only recorded crime; that is, crimes reported by victims and third parties or crimes unearthed by proactive police work.

However, the data could certainly be viewed with a sense of optimism. Levels of crime have been falling since 2008, with overall crime rates down by 13 per cent since then. And the figures reveal that of the 704 Garda stations in the Republic, 80 per cent recorded one crime a day or less last year and 41 per cent recorded one crime a week or less.

Despite sometimes hysterical newspaper headlines, aside from a relatively small number of areas where Garda stations are clearly burdened, the rest of the country is by and large lawful and safe. The figures show that if the political will was strong enough – as strong, for example, as that which has proven so focused in taxing ordinary workers to pay for the losses of reckless bankers – the apparently endless flow of young people into criminality could be stemmed.

For example, when you examine the Airo/CSO figures for drug crime and for weapons/gun crime, there are relatively few areas with very serious problems.

However, the same locations crop up again and again across the crime figures. Of the top 20 busiest Garda stations for drug crime last year, 16 featured in the top 20 busiest stations for weapons offences.

Trying to divert at-risk children away from crime might seem like an impossible task. However, reducing class sizes and providing one-to-one tuition, as well as special numeracy and literacy teaching resources in schools in the catchment areas of those 16 Garda stations would seem like a good place to start.

Whatever those resources might be, it is vital that geographic crime trends begin to dictate priorities in the education system if we are serious about reducing crime long-term.

Conor Lally is Crime Correspondent

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