Wednesday 13 December 2017

Teenage hitmen known to gardai from childhood

The justice system is powerless to stop the progress through the ranks of out-of-control children who will grow up to become the next generation of gangland criminals, writes Jim Cusack

'After his release, one boy committed an appalling car hijacking in which the woman driver had her throat slashed...'

TWO boys stood out among the worst of the young offenders to emerge about a decade ago. The two youths, both from south inner Dublin, were considered by gardai as potential major threats to society. Both were arrested dozens of times by the time they had done their Junior Cert.

A garda recalled one instance of being before a judge with one of the youths who was facing 10 serious charges, all involving theft and violence. The judge determined that gardai could not prove the boy was aware that what he was doing was wrong, and dismissed the charges.

Gardai recalled taking the boy after being arrested for nearly his 50th serious offence to a youth detention centre in Finglas only to be told there was no room, and they were directed to drive him home. He was arrested the next day for another offence. This happened repeatedly.

Eventually, both boys were sentenced to three months' in the Children's detention school in Oberstown, near Lusk in north Co Dublin.

There, they both thrived, gardai recall. For the first time in their lives they had a settled life, regular meals, schooling and sporting activities.

One showed himself a bright pupil. The other amazed staff at a sports day, clocking a time in a sprint race that should have marked him out as a potential Olympic athlete.

After his release from Oberstown and back into a life of crime, the runner committed an appalling car hijacking during which the woman driver had her throat slashed. A garda pursuit followed, during which another 15-year-old youth in the car fired shots from a handgun at gardai.

The boy who had shown academic promise, aged 15 on his release, ganged up with another youth and girl of similar age and pedigree and carried out a series of crimes, including a home invasion of staggering brutality.

In both instances, both youths were finally sentenced to three years each for these serious offences, and sent to St Patrick's unit in Mountjoy Prison. St Patrick's is Ireland's criminal "finishing school", as the late Prisons Inspector, Judge Dermot Kinlen, described it over a decade ago.

Both young men emerged from St Pat's as fully fledged desperadoes. One aligned himself with one of the feuding Crumlin-Drimnagh gangs.

He is the main suspect in the torture and murder of 21-year-old Eddie McCabe, who was beaten half to death and then had a sewer rod forced through the back of his head and out his eye socket, in Inchicore in December 2006.

Both young men were addicted to cocaine and both are currently serving lengthy sentences. Since the period when these two emerged, the youth justice system has become even less effective.

One day last month, gardai who were acquainted with the hardened criminals as young men were quickly able to identify two other teenagers whom they say fit exactly the same pattern. Both have multiple arrests and have been before the Children's Court many times. Their latest arrests are for offences significantly more serious than their usual smartphone and handbag snatches in Dublin city centre.

One, who comes from a broken family in north Dublin, was arrested recently with a substantial amount of drugs.

The other boy, also from the northside, has been an increasing concern for the past two years, displaying very serious violent tendencies, and is already a member of a teenage gang with access to guns. This youth threatened to murder a school welfare officer when the woman called to his home after he had stopped attending school in his early teens.

The two increasingly dangerous teenagers are on their way to Oberstown, the State's only youth detention centre for boys up to 17 and girls up to 18. These "national" facilities provide only 44 spaces for boys and eight for girls despite the fact there are 5,500 "children" before the criminal youth justice system. At most, the two boys will spend three months there during which time it is hoped they will calm down, but after their release the outlook is bleak both for them and society, gardai say. Neither has a settled family background.

The contention by gardai that the system for dealing with juvenile crime is worsening is supported by statistics that show increasing numbers of young people coming before the courts on increasingly serious offences.

Gardai issue verbal cautions to around 10,000 juveniles each year and, for half of these, that is generally the end of it. For the rest, they are taken into what is known as the Garda Youth Diversion Projects, which means they are subjected to a certain amount of scrutiny -- if their behaviour worsens, they come before the courts; and the worst are headed for detention, albeit for only brief periods. The number who become part of the Garda Youth Diversion Projects has risen 23 per cent in the last four years and is now up to between 5,000 and 6,000 teenagers a year.

The bulk of these teenagers are from broken family backgrounds and about 4,500 at present are ending up in the care of the HSE, which has to find them temporary accommodation, usually in B&Bs. In such places, gardai say, the promised monitoring does not take place and youths are at risk of drugs and crime.

Despite the fact that the Government introduced a new layer of bureaucracy in dealing with juvenile offending with the establishment of the €50m-a-year Irish Youth Justice Service in 2002, the actual number of secure detention places has significantly declined in recent years.

The detention centre at Finglas in Dublin, which could accommodate over 30 young people, was closed down in 2010 and 35 staff took voluntary redundancy. The last report of the Irish Youth Justice Service stated that "significant cost savings have been achieved" in children's detention schools where staff numbers were reduced from 310 to 226 through retirements, voluntary redundancies and non-renewal of contracts.

Despite this significant decline in the number of people employed to look after imprisoned young people, along with the bedlam that takes place daily in the Children's Courts and the increase in crimes committed by young people, in its annual report, the Youth Justice Service speaks of a "more co-ordinated strategic approach, making better use of existing resources". The Youth Justice Service, whose headquarters are on Mespil Road in Dublin 4, beside the tree-lined Grand Canal, also refers to "improved outcomes in the youth justice sector".

Oberstown's 52 secure places comprise the State's total provision for young offenders outside the "university of crime", as some gardai call St Pat's in Mountjoy.

St Pat's was again condemned earlier this month as unfit for purpose in the latest report by the inspector of prisons. However, its closure and replacement was recommended nearly 30 years ago in a report by then senior civil servant TK Whitaker. Since Whitaker witnessed "the psychological deterioration of the young offenders", the 220-bed prison has been condemned by the UN, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the European Committee on Social Rights and Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Thomas Hammarberg.

In the interim, rather than building adequate facilities for young offenders, the State has responded with a series of what one garda last week referred to as "aspirational" initiatives such as the anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOs), various "community-based" behavioural orders and "behaviour management programmes". Gardai have streamlined their systems for dealing with juvenile offenders, bringing the often multiple charge sheets under the direction of a single "case-management" garda who assumes responsibility for an individual youth.

The general juvenile crime situation, in the meantime, is becoming increasingly critical, gardai say. The abundance of illegal guns on the streets has become a particularly worrying issue, gardai say. Of the 200 or so young people at Oberstown last year, eight had been arrested for having firearms or offensive weapons. There are currently nine juveniles, officially termed "children" until their 18th birthdays, who are before the courts on homicide charges. This, gardai say, is the highest number they have encountered. Almost all of those detained in St Pat's have committed offences involving violence. Many are already gang members, and the gang culture has flourished in the prison.

Meanwhile, work on the purported new Children's detention school in Obers-town, just off the old Belfast to Dublin road, has shown little progress. Announced in 2010, after the latest condemnations of St Pat's, an initial budget allocation of €90m was mentioned. It has been suggested recently that the budget has been cut to €50m.

The new centre was to be up and running from early next year, with no more 16-year-old youths going to St Pat's. So far the only construction has been of a gateway, built early this year. Local people say there has been virtually no activity since.

Sunday Independent

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