It’s a tough sell, but we need to deal with violent young men in a more nuanced way

Young adults aged 18-24, mostly males, make up 20 per cent of the prison population and are far more likely to reoffend on release

Last month, 19-year-old Alan Shattock was jailed for two years for a horrific assault on Yasser Saud, which left the Iraqi medical student blind in one eye. The viciousness of the attack was compounded by the fact that Shattock, of Kingswood Heights, Tallaght, and his friends racially abused the young man and his cousin beforehand.

The story appeared on various online news sites, where commenters voiced in nearly complete unison their anger that Shattock was not jailed for longer.

At first glance, it’s obvious Shattock should be locked up for a considerable length of time. His was a vile, unprovoked attack which severely impacted a young man’s life.

I was in court for the sentence hearing. As the facts were read out I felt that familiar anger which rises every time I hear about a mindless thug shattering an innocent life for no good reason. Mr Saud suffered severe blood trauma and optic nerve damage, he is now anxious around others and can no longer play sports because he has lost hand-eye co-ordination.

However, once the anger and disgust subside, such cases deserve a second look. Shattock had no previous convictions, had completed his Leaving Cert and was in full-time employment. Judge Martin Nolan said Shattock had shown genuine remorse and had "the perfect mitigation".

It will cost about €130,000 to house and feed Shattock during his time in prison, excluding any courses or education he may receive. There is also the loss in tax revenue from Shattock losing his job. Most importantly, there is a 68 per cent chance he will reoffend on his release, creating more victims like Mr Saud and more cost to the State.

It’s a tough sell, especially to his victim, to argue that someone like Shattock should not be locked away from society. But an increasing amount of international evidence shows a more nuanced approach to the problem of violent young males yields far better results than simple custodial sentences.

Young adults aged 18-24, the vast majority of them males, make up 20 per cent of the prison population despite representing only 9 per cent of the general population. They are also far more likely to reoffend on release.

There are many diversionary and outreach programmes for child offenders and the law states that those who come before a court can be imprisoned only as a last resort. All that changes when the child turns 18. The supports drop away and the courts have full power to impose a prison term without regard to the youth’s age. The offenders are still angry, violent and easily led, but the safety net disappears.

Accepted scientific research shows the process of maturity and brain development continues past 18 and into the mid-20s. During this crucial period, the right intervention can make all the difference. Evidence shows that under-25s are far more amenable to changing their ways compared with older offenders.

Data gathered from a dozen countries by the Irish Penal Reform Trust shows that increased use of non-custodial options such as intensive community sanctions, supervised and supported bail, and restorative justice programmes lead directly to a drop in reoffending or prevent offending in the first place among young men.

A recent report from the trust states that intervention alone will not work; it has to be the right kind of intervention. One study cited states, “Intervening too much, too soon and in the wrong ways runs the serious risk of establishing criminal reputations and identities rather than diminishing them.”

Training gardaí and prosecutors to use their discretion in how they process young adults means more young people will avoid falling into the catch-and-release cycle.

We do not have to look far to see such measures at work. In 2007 Scotland’s main youth detention facility was judged by the prison watchdog to be “dangerously overcrowded”. Today it is nearly empty. The number of offenders under 21 in Scottish detention has more than halved since authorities moved away from a prison-focused crime-prevention model.

It isn’t just that less young people are going to jail for their crimes.

A recent report showed the number of young men convicted of offences in Scotland has fallen 70 per cent in a generation, and complaints to the police about youth crime are down 75 per cent since 2008. Britain and Wales have seen a broadly similar decline. In contrast, the number of under-25s in Irish custody has fallen only slightly from 896 in 2008 to 844 at the start of 2015.

Showing mercy and compassion to violent young men who arguably deserve neither is a big ask of society. But recognising such offenders as being in a special category of not children but not yet adults will yield substantial benefits. They need to be punished but also shown that society hasn’t given up on them just because they’ve turned 18.

Of course, some will laugh at such an apparently soft touch. However, if a more practical approach can force just some of the angry young men like Alan Shattock on to the right track and prevent a few more victims like Yasser Saud, surely it’s worth a try.