The Department of Justice and Equality must develop a strategy which deals specifically with young adults aged 18-24 within the criminal justice system, the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) has said.
The trust, which campaigns for the rights of people in prison, has called on the Irish criminal justice system to implement measures to support young offenders who are “on a transitional journey from childhood into adulthood”.
The Turnaround Youth: Young Adults (aged 18-24) in the Criminal Justice System report shows the human brain and maturity continue to develop into one's mid-20s, leaving young adults particularly vulnerable to peer pressure.
It found socioeconomic factors such as unemployment, not being in education and living in a disadvantaged area also led to young adults becoming substance-dependent and at a higher risk of offending.
“The current justice system has created a cliff face off which you fall within months of your 18th birthday,” said Deirdre Malone, IPRT executive director. “We’re relying on the most expensive and the least effective way of reducing reoffending - and it doesn’t make economic sense or social sense.”
The IPRT found that in Ireland, “once a person reaches 18 years, they are no longer treated as a child but become immediately answerable to the laws and regulations that govern the adult population, regardless of their level of maturity or vulnerability”.
Prison should only be a sanction of last resort for young adults, particularly those convicted of non-violent offences, the report says.
While only 9 per cent of the population is aged 18-24 years, this age group makes up 24 per cent of numbers in Irish jails, according to data from the CSO.
A recent study from the Irish Prison Service also found 68 per cent of people aged 21-25 reoffended after release compared to 53 per cent of the rest of the population.
Speaking at the launch of the report, transition year student Ciara Egan (16) from Finglas called for an end to the “stigmatisation of young people from marginalised backgrounds”.
She said teenagers in her estate were often stopped by gardaí for questioning.
“When you’re constantly being criminalised and you haven’t done anything wrong, sometimes making the jump to actually being a criminal isn’t that hard,” she said.
“You can’t assume everyone that commits a crime is a bad person. Sometimes we’re just a product of the inequalities that we face.”
Assistant Garda Commissioner John Twomey welcomed the calls from the IPRT, saying gardaí were "intent on listening to the voices of others" and working with respect for others to "create a safer society".
Solicitor Jane O’Neill said the current criminal justice system was wasting its resources and creating a demoralising environment for young offenders.
“Custody is not working, we have habits and alliances being formed in custody,” she said, adding many of her clients reported taking pills or using heroin for the first time while in custody.
Ms O’Neill also called for anonymity to be extended to offenders under the age of 21.
“We all know every employer who’s looking for a prospective employee now Googles them. If what comes up about you is you have been convicted, it’s very unlikely you’re going to be a given a chance over somebody else.”