Delays in youth justice system a ‘obstacle to rehabilitation’

Earlier this year James* stood outside a district court with his social worker, trying to keep warm.

It was wet and cold and passers-by stared at him and his fellow court attendees as they waited. Covid-19 restrictions meant everyone had to wait outside until their case was called.

There were a lot of names on the list ahead of James. His social worker asked a staff member if his case was likely to be reached. Probably not, was the reply, but they had to stay just in case.

It was the 22-year-old’s 13th court turn up after being charged with possession of €10 worth of cannabis in October 2018; a Garda had caught him and a friend smoking a joint in a parked car in south Dublin.

His case was not reached. Instead it was adjourned for a 14th and afterward a 15th time. James is due back before the court this month. Despite a guilty plea and 14 court appearances over a three-year period, the matter appears no closer to being finalised.

It is not already James’s oldest noticeable case. Another charge, stemming from his fingerprints being found on a stolen car, dates to 2015 when he was 14 years old.

“He feels like giving up,” his social worker says. “He thinks he will never get out from under this.”

James is no angel. He has multiple past offences, mostly related to cannabis, and has spent a fleeting time in custody. But, according to his arrest record, he has not been in trouble for two years. These days he mainly sits in his room, on his PlayStation for up to 10 hours a day, his social worker says.

Series of delays

He is one of many young people caught in a seemingly endless series of delays in the youth justice system, says Aisling Golden, the justice programme manager with the Solas Project which supports young people in the justice system.

“We tell these young people, ‘This is how you do it, this is how you make it work.’ And we’re being proven wrong. All these delays are doing is proving to young people that the system doesn’t work,” says Golden who has before worked for the Garda Youth Diversion Project and with gang members in Boston.

“This feeling of hopelessness sets in. They feel they can’t win and they ask ‘What’s the f**king point?’”

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has been ratified by Ireland, states children facing criminal charges have a right to have the matter “determined without delay”.

To a large extent, this is not happening in Ireland. And it is not a new problem. Four research studies conducted in 2005-2010 found delays in court lists and the habitual use of adjournments were shared in the Children Court.

“It is clear that the length of time currently involved in processing the situations of young people serves to dilute the impact and seriousness of the court course of action and the consequences arising from their offending behaviour,” a 2008 report from the Office of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs stated. “Furthermore, and most seriously, it places young people at greater risk of detention on remand as a consequence of re-offending or breach of bail.”

A 2019 Department of Justice report noted that delays “continue to be a challenge” while the new Youth Justice Strategy pledges to combat the problem by prioritising situations involving children and young adults, and minimising the number of court appearances they confront.

Neurological differences

Young people should be treated differently because they are different, at the minimum on a neurological level, says Dr Louise Forde, a lecturer in law at Brunel Law School who has extensively studied the Irish youth justice system.

“We know that one of the reasons teenagers and young adults tend to get into trouble at a higher rate is because of issues relating to their development.

“We have got a lot of neurological research coming out in the past few years confirming what we already knew, that children are different, that their brains are not fully developed in addition, they have less understanding of risks of particular actions and more likely to want to act in a way that pleases peers.

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