Report urges setting up youth justice system


A Department of Justice group wants the proposed juvenile service to take responsibility for all children up to 18, writes Carol Coulter, Legal Affairs Correspondent.

The setting up of a new youth justice service is to be recommended to the Government in the autumn, The Irish Times has learned.

The recommendation will come in a report from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, where a group, under the chairmanship of Sylda Langford, has been studying the problems of the youth justice system for almost a year.

Minister for Justice Michael McDowell referred to this group when he launched the annual report of the Courts Service last week. He said the youth justice system was characterised by the involvement of many different departments and agencies, carrying a danger of a breakdown in responsibility.

He said the group had consulted widely and had evaluated international best practice, and he would be bringing its recommendations to the Cabinet in the autumn.

The Irish Times has learned that the group is recommending the creation of a youth justice service to take responsibility for all children up to the age of 18.

Currently those under 16 are the responsibility of the Department of Education and Science, with 16- and 17-year-olds coming under the Department of Justice and the Prison Service. Children in trouble, but not yet in the criminal justice system, come under the responsibility of the Department of Health and Children.

"The lack of cohesion in the State's response to dealing with young offenders was of serious concern to those involved in the consultation process," according to the report's summary.

"The fact that three Government departments and countless agencies were involved made a uniform approach almost impossible and many contributors recommended that some mechanism be put in place to facilitate cross-agency collaboration."

Long term, the youth justice service should be under the aegis of the Health Service Executive, according to the group. However, given that the HSE is at a very early stage of development, it recommends that the service be under the responsibility of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform as an interim measure.

The new youth justice service should bring services for young offenders together under one structure, with three objectives: policy development; responsibility for services ranging from detention through community sanctions to diversion projects and restorative justice conferencing; and improving the delivery of services.

It would assume responsibility for the running of detention schools, which would be education-focused, and have a role with the Probation and Welfare Service in providing community services for young offenders.

It envisages the development of protocols with the Courts Service and other agencies, and also recommends finding ways to improve the confidentiality and privacy of young offenders before the Circuit or Central Criminal Courts.

It also raised the question of dedicated children's courts throughout the State, or other measures to ensure the protection of children's privacy and confidentiality in the courts system.

This report follows the publication of two reports critical of the Children's Court in Dublin. An audit of children's rights for those before the court, by Dr Ursula Kilkelly of UCC, found that their right to privacy was not protected at all times.

It also found that young people were not facilitated in exercising their right to participate in their criminal proceedings and in many cases did not understand what was going on.

As well as infringing their rights, this reduced the potential effectiveness of the process in challenging their offending behaviour, Dr Kilkelly said.

A study of 50 young people before the Dublin Children's Court by the Irish Association for the Study of Delinquency found significant delays in cases involving children coming to trial; the use of detention for half those convicted, although under the 2001 Children's Act this should be a last resort; and a pattern of problems with family background, educational disadvantage and alcohol and drug misuse, especially among those sentenced to detention.