Perspectives on Youth Crime: Discussion Papers from Barnardos and the Irish Penal Reform Trust

Barnardos & the Irish Penal Reform Trust. (2000). Perspectives on Youth Crime: Discussion Papers from Barnardos and the Irish Penal Reform Trust.
Crimes committed by young people represent a substantial proportion of all crime. Although in the main they tend to be of a relatively minor nature, their prevalence and the associated potential impact on victims and, indeed on the young offenders themselves, demand study and debate. In particular, both the causes and effects of youth crime together with the identification of measures which might reduce its incidence demand investigation. In considering the profile of youth crime it is evident that most young people who come into conflict with the law have experienced social and educational disadvantage in one form or another. It is necessary, therefore, to include an analysis of these conditions in any consideration of the problem and how it might be ameliorated. It is also important to remind ourselves that under eighteen year olds are children as defined by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Ireland has ratified. Communities which have experienced prolonged exposure to disadvantage are all too easily stereotyped in terms of their high levels of poverty, unemployment, poor standards of housing and general environmental infrastructure, below average educational achievement and so forth. It is all too easy to write off such places as bleak and dangerous ghettos stalked by hopelessly inadequate and anti-social children. But we do so at our peril. Barnardos’ experience in providing support services to children and families in many disadvantaged communities throughout Ireland is that, while they certainly have suffered from the ravages of official neglect, counterproductive policies and social discrimination, they also exhibit great resilience and warmth, and significant degrees of heroism in the face of adversity. And while they may experience high levels of crime and disorder, the ingredients of a solution are often present. Indeed, with the introduction of the family conference concept, it is becoming increasingly recognised that solutions to youth crime require the active involvement of families and communities. lf we are serious about reducing the incidence of crime perpetrated by young people we will need to begin by addressing the causes of inequality and disadvantage in our society. For example, we will need to invest heavily in early childhood care and education as critical first steps towards ensuring that all children have an opportunity to realise their full potential. And it is important that this be seen as an investment, rather than a cost. It will become a cost if we fail to invest. Research from the United States has indicated that for every $1 invested at the pre-school stage there is a saving of $7 in reduced government expenditure, including criminal justice interventions such as prison and probation. Measures such as early child development programmes, sympathetic educational regimes and family support services can have a positive impact on the incidence of youth crime, but will not eliminate it. A broader political shift is also required. It is vital that any official response emphasises community-based alternatives and diversion from prosecution. Detention must be relegated to the option of last resort. ‘Populist punitiveness’ is not the way forward. It is essential that a comprehensive range of measures that recognises the causes and effects of youth crime and encompasses appropriate and effective sanctions be provided, based on solid research and experience. The Irish Penal Reform Trust and Barnardos have come together to produce these papers on youth crime as an aid to understanding the phenomenon and developing a more appropriate and effective response than has obtained to date. The recent publication of the Children Bill 1999 and the consequent debate as it proceeds through the Oireachtas provide a context for the consideration of these papers. While these are not definitive policy statements, both the Irish Penal Reform Trust and Barnardos hope that our collaboration is seen as a positive contribution, not only to this debate, but to the achievement of a reduction in the incidence of youth crime and the design of more acceptable outcomes for both victims and offenders.