Sunday 19 January 2020

Can our juvenile system keep children from a life of crime?

Emer O'Kelly asks if 
the sentencing last 
week of three young 
men for violent assault 
was inevitable

Mr Justice Patrick McCartan
Mr Justice Patrick McCartan

Emer O'Kelly

So what exactly did he mean? On Tuesday last, Mr Justice Patrick McCartan sentenced three men in their 20s in the Circuit Court. Two years ago the men had been trying to mug another man in central Dublin.

Two American tourists, a New York stockbroker called Garth Russell and his brother Patrick, intervened. The three thugs followed them and attacked them with bottles from an adjacent skip. Mr Russell still has a piece of glass embedded in his face, and is permanently scarred. His brother suffered a broken arm in the attack.

Of the three men before Mr. Justice McCartan, one had 26 previous convictions; another had eight previous convictions. The third had 69 previous convictions.

Judge McCartan said the three had come through the "well-worn path" of the juvenile criminal justice system which "did not seem in any way adequately resourced or capable of dealing with them." Hence, he said, "a day like today comes when they graduate from an overly protective system into an adult court where they are facing serious terms of imprisonment." (He sentenced the three to prison for terms that varied from two to five years.)

Not enough, some might say. What chance have they had in life, others might ask? And a lot more people are asking exactly what the judge meant by the words "overly protective".

Within the juvenile criminal justice system the general idea is to avoid a custodial sentence wherever possible. These three men, now mature and probably irredeemably locked into criminal behaviour, had been given every possible chance. They received all the alternatives to custody, including community services, probation supervision and fines. They abused them all. And two years ago, lawless and rampaging on the Dublin streets, they disfigured an innocent man for life, and severely injured another.

Patrick McCartan is no 'hang 'em and flog 'em' judge. Yet, he seemed to suggest in this case that the men before him had received too much protection from the system throughout their escalating criminal careers.

What has brought these convictions into the headlines has been Judge McCartan's criticism of the juvenile criminal justice system.

Catherine Ghent, a solicitor with the company Gallagher Shatter, And one of the country's leading experts on child and juvenile law, has pointed out that the Children's Act of 2001 made "care of the child" a statutory part of the system.

She also stated during the week that the Juvenile Diversion Programme, set up following the introduction of the Act, aims to intervene at an early stage to prevent the development of criminal behaviour patterns. It is, she said, working to good effect.

Ms Ghent said on RTE that these men's patterns of criminal behaviuor would have been set before the introduction of such interventions. But one of these men was seven years old in 2001, another 11, the third was 15. They were all in the juvenile criminal system long after the "improvements" triggered by the Children's Act 2001. So it is arguable that the system is still not effective enough.

That would seem to support Ms Ghent's contention that intervention to prevent criminality among children at risk can be needed, and should be identified, in the pre-school years, maybe as early as the age of 18 months. In an ideal world, some might say this should be par for the course. In a world of totalitarian state control, others might say, this would be a nightmare.

Either way, Judge McCartan believes the system is "incapable of dealing with violent young men" who are graduates of the statutory intervention system.

But if the risks to our childrens' future welfare are to be identified when they are as young as 18 months, are we not looking at a situation where parents will inevitably be blamed in advance?

If a child is born to a recidivist violent father with multiple convictions, and a heroin-addicted mother whose pregnancies have been by serial partners, some of whom she may not even have known by name, is that an indication that the child should be the subject of intervention? And in such a situation, should the State act equally as stringently if the mother and father are affluent and/or well-known, as they do if they are welfare recipients?

Child protection services and mental health services are woefully inadequately funded, not just in Ireland. That inadequacy is unlikely be resolved; and we have to work within it.

Nor do we have a magic solution as to how we achieve a balance between individual rights of parents, civic rights for the general public to be safe from violent crime, and the basic human right of every young person to a decent chance in life. We do know that some people, even at a young age, have a greater propensity for lawlessness, including violence, than others.

I also know that as a junior reporter I sat in the Children's Court and listened to what seemed like an endless stream of unhappy mothers who begged the Justice not to send their son away. And the appeal was almost always accompanied by the protest that he had never been in trouble with the law until now. When the long list of sometimes serious crimes of which the 15-year-old had already been found guilty, the mother would reply "but Justice, he's never been sent away." Without a custodial sentence they considered themselves, literally, out of jail and free.

The future of children at risk of descending into a life of crime is dependent on resolving that conundrum.

Sunday Independent

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