A Ceann Comhairle I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Private Members motion and propose to approach it from the point of view of my spokespersons portfolio of Juvenile Justice.
There is a growing fear in many communities that the upsurge in opportunistic type crime both against property and the person is reaching epidemic proportions. This fear is understandable given the levels of apparent mindless violence that are now evident.
Getting tough on crime and creating the political illusion that a Government is on top of the issue involves much more than building new facilities and increasing our prison population. We have been treated in this house over the last number of years to a ‘New York Zero Tolerance’ philosophy and the ‘Trust me because I know best’ philosophy and yet we find ourselves still debating the issue.
I acknowledge the enacting of the parts of the Childrens Act 2001 and the establishment of the Irish Youth Justice Service but it is now time for the Minister to break from the Government style of the previous 11 years, the style of Commissioning Reports, the style of Establishing Taskforces, the style of Empty Rhetoric and the style of Creating Forum.
This motion is presented in terms that allow the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to clearly set out how this Government plan to tackle the deterioration in standards of behaviour on our streets.
A majority of people in Ireland believe that most people come out of prison worse than they went in. Anecdotal evidence shows us that the environment of prison for drug addicts merely exacerbates the condition, allows the young criminal hone his skills and maintain the cycle of lawlessness on release. Up to 77% of offenders in Mountjoy have spent time in St. Patricks Institution for Juvenile offenders. There are children who have notched up 20, 30 or the maximum that I am aware of 64 convictions before they even reach adulthood. This is making a total mockery of the Juvenile Justice System.
The limitations of imprisonment as a response to juvenile crime do have to be acknowledged and we need to see a commitment from the Government to explore all avenues in order to create a safe society for its citizens.
I believe that the issue of Restorative Justice in which the victim, offender and a facilitator meet and agree on a resolution is one in which we could make progress. In order for it to work the rights of the victim have to be placed as close as possible to the fundamentals of Restorative Justice. The model to some extent humanises the crime committed and could potentially be beneficial to the victim, offender, the wider community and the exchequer.
We have an amount of legislation on the Statute books in relation to Justice, Equality and Law Reform and yet the whole area of the Victim of Crime has largely been ignored. The Fine Gael Victim Rights Bill is a concerted effort to address this shortcoming and should be debated and agreed on by all sides of this house.
A Restorative Justice system will not deal with all offenders. The measures included in the Childrens Act such as Community Sanction and the Diversion Programme do have an obvious potential and should continue to form part of and be expanded upon in relation to the Juvenile Justice system.
There is a proposal to detain children in the new Thornton Hall once St Patricks Institution is closed down. Currently St Patricks houses males between the ages of 16 and 21. The Childrens Act 2001 says all children who are detained must be kept in suitable detention centres. This is an effort to prevent the detention of children with adults in accordance with the UN Convention on Children’s rights. We have not seen a proper plan from this Government to adequately deal with the closing of the institution and we face the worsening prospect of housing juveniles aged between 16 and 18 in an adult prison environment.
The Irish Prison Chaplains Annual Report 2006/2007 states that 50% of inmates at St Patricks Institution are illiterate. This is a shocking statistic and reveals a lot about our Justice System. There is an obvious link between juvenile offence and education. Given that St. Patricks is regarded as a preparatory school for the Mountjoys and Wheatfields is it not time that a different approach was introduced to break this cycle. The possibility of offering an incentive towards sentence reduction if inmates participated in furthering their education with a view to completing State Exams is one which could prove to be of benefit.
The role of Juvenile Liason Officer in the Garda Siochanna is key to the implementation of any successful Juvenile Justice System. I have met many of these officers since my election last summer and I would like to take this opportunity to commend them on the work that they do at the coalface. One of the points they make to me, and it shows their attitude to young people, is that 84% of young people get to 18 years without ever going to court. They also say that their decision making abilities and actual powers are somewhat reduced and eroded by the amount of legislation they contend with. 14500 annual referrals are made to the National Juvenile Office involving young people aged between 12 and 18. This process involves Juvenile Liason Officer reporting to the Sergeant, Sergeant reporting to the Superintendent, Superintendent reporting to the National Office and the National Office reporting back to the Juvenile Liason Officer. This would appear to be a system that is heavy on bureaucracy and inefficient in operation. Surely a system with more decision making abilities at the front end would be more productive and responsive.
The issue of Community Policing is also one which has somewhat fallen from the political radar and become lower and lower on our list of priorities. We can see a reduction in numbers of Garda and a reallocation of resources since the introduction of this scheme in 1991. Community Policing like the Juvenile Liason Officer offers the most effective means