4th July 2017  

Youth Justice Policy in Ireland-Where to next? 


Speech by Minister of State David Stanton TD 

I am very pleased to be here today to open the Annual Irish Criminal Justice Agencies Conference. This is the fourth year of the conference which sees once again Maura Butler and her team in ACJRD working in partnership with the Justice agencies to develop the Conference Programme encompassing, what I think, will be a day of stimulating presentations and discussions. I would like to thank Maura and her team and also Michelle Shannon and her team in the Irish Youth Justice Service, which took on the lead agency role in the planning and organisation of this year’s conference. 

As with previous years, the ICJA Conference presents us with the opportunity to take a topic or theme and to examine it in a detailed way having regard to the many different perspectives of a wide range of interested parties including academics, policy makers, state and non-state practitioners, non-governmental organisations and most importantly, given our conference theme, young people themselves. The tradition of informality normally associated with this conference lends itself greatly to the type of open discussions and exchanges of ideas necessary to inform our thinking about how our youth justice system might look in the future.  

The context for today’s conference, which has as its theme “Youth Justice Policy in Ireland – Where to Next”, is the requirement in ‘Tackling Youth Crime - Youth Justice Action Plan 2014-2018’ to review the Children Act 2001. This Act established the legal framework for dealing with young people who commit offences. The Youth Justice Action Plan forms part of ‘Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures’, the National Policy Framework for Children and Young People 2014-2020’, developed by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, with its focus on better outcomes for children and families. The Action Plan aims to progress a wide range of issues, which support the implementation of Government policy on youth crime, including crime prevention, and help to inform future developments in this field of activity. 

A review of the Children Act 2001 in the first instance requires us to review the policy and practices underpinning its operation. In order to do this we must have the input of our key partners and stakeholders, including community based organisations working on the ground with young people by delivering Garda Youth Diversion Project and Young Persons Probation Project Services. I understand that a number of these organisations are represented here today. I thank them for the great work they do in preventing further anti-social and criminal behaviour by steering youths into positive activities. I encourage them to share their views and experiences of how the current youth justice system manifests itself on the ground and the issues that presents for them and the services they provide. 

So turning to the Act itself, while it has been amended on a couple of occasions since its enactment, the general thrust of the legislation has remained unchanged for some time now. Where a young person under the age of 18 comes into conflict with the law, the principles of the Act apply. The Act requires the various authorities within the youth justice system to apply incrementally a series of measures, ranging from diversion to community sanctions, with detention as a last resort. 


The incremental approach taken under the Children Act to how we deal with young people who offend would seem consistent with international guidelines in this area, including those of the Committee on the Rights of the Child, which promote diversionary practices as an integral part of any youth justice system. However, we still need to reflect upon how well it has all been working in practice. For instance, what has been the experience of practitioners and young people in relation to the operation of the Diversion Programme and the Children Court and the utility of the suite of non-custodial alternatives available to the Court? What new challenges and issues have emerged over the years of the Act’s operation and how well is it suited today to address them having regard to developments in international standards and in other jurisdictions. We want to hear what works well from the legislation and the policies and practices that have underpinned its operation. What has not worked so well and why? Where problems are identified, we want to hear your ideas for addressing them and your solutions for improving and developing the system. My hope very much is for an ideas and solutions based conference so it is a real opportunity for you, the experts in this area, to offer your perspectives, your ideas, and your thoughts about our next steps in the further development of our youth justice system. 

While all that might sound like a lot of questions that we don’t have answers to, we do in fact know quite a lot more about young people who offend than we did when the Children Act 2001 was enacted. We know that the number of children coming to the attention of the criminal justice system is small in overall terms and that detected youth crime constitutes approximately 9% of all detected offences. We also know that the typical offending they get involved with relates to public order, criminal damage, and alcohol and drug misuse. We also know that the vast majority of young people grow out of crime. Nonetheless, the type of offending involved is a cause of concern and distress for members of the public exposed to it so we cannot ever become complacent in our approach to dealing with it. 

Therefore, we continue to position ourselves well for the future by continuing to develop our knowledge and build the evidence base to inform better our decisions in relation to policy and programme planning and design. There has been an increased focus in recent years on the use of the best available evidence to support services for young people and improve their outcomes, and in developing targeted interventions to divert young people from the criminal justice system. This is particularly evidenced in the decision to establish the Research Evidence into Policy, Programmes and Practice Project (known as the REPPP project) in the University of Limerick. This project is a three year partnership agreement between the Irish Youth Justice Service (Department of Children and Youth Affairs) and the School of Law, University of Limerick. The Project is essentially concerned with improving the evidence base, which will offer the opportunity to make better policy, programme and practice decisions, thereby ensuring smarter investment of monies in public services, while contributing to the achievement of better outcomes for children and young people as envisaged by Better Outcomes Brighter Futures which I referred to earlier.  

As regards the task immediately at hand, a glance at the Conference Programme will show that we will be greatly assisted with our thinking by some really excellent and expert speakers. I am delighted that Judge John O’Connor is here today to provide his perspective in relation to what works and could work better in the youth justice policy area having regard to his extensive experience in the Children Court. Professor Geoffrey Shannon, Special Rapporteur on Child Protection, will provide us with his own reflections on the current legal framework and his thoughts for future developments in that regard. Dr. Ursula Kilkelly, University College Cork and Chairperson of the Oberstown Detention School Campus will offer us her perspectives on the question of detention and Julie Ahern from the Children’s Rights Alliance will share with us some perspectives from young people. We also have Ms. Roxana Ungureanu who has travelled from Romania to be with us today to talk about the comparative policy ambitions of youth justice systems across Europe and how Ireland fares in those respects.  

These presentations will then be complemented by some really interesting and hopefully thought provoking workshop sessions which will seek to have you focus on some of the practical issues associated with the operation of the legislation and how they might give rise to the need for change both in the law but also in practice. The workshop sessions will provide the opportunity for participants to share their views and experiences. We also recognise the value and importance of hearing from young people themselves and we have arranged for their voices to be heard today also. 

I should say that today’s discussions are but one strand of the work being done to review policy and practice in the youth justice area. The Garda Commissioner established a Review Group to examine the operation of the statutory Diversion Programme provided for under Part 4 of the Children Act 2001. The terms of reference of the Group extended to examining the application and administration of the Diversion Programme; examining relevant legislation; researching international best practice on diversion and making recommendations. I understand that the work of the Review Group is nearing completion and I look forward to hearing about their recommendations, which, in combination with the outcome of the discussions at Workshop 2, will inform possible future developments in practice and the law in the area of diversion.  

I might just take the opportunity to say that a lot of good work has been and continues to be done to support the operation of the legislation through service and practice developments at local level. Just over €17 million has been allocated by the Irish Youth Justice Service to support community based crime diversion initiatives in 2017 including, Garda Youth Diversion Projects, Local Drugs Task Force Projects and Young Persons Probation Projects. It is worth noting that since 2015, all of the Garda Projects and some of the Probation Projects are being co-funded under the Programme for Employability, Inclusion and Learning (PEIL) of the European Social Fund Programme 2014-2020. This investment and support from the European Social Fund is a testament to the success of these services in tackling and preventing youth crime and promoting positive outcomes for the young people who come into contact with them. For example in 2015 and 2016 approximately 40% of young people had achieved a higher level of education upon leaving a Garda Youth Diversion Project than they had when they first entered the project.  

Another initiative recently introduced in the youth justice area that I am a big supporter of is the Work to Learn Programme, which I launched in Cobh on 29 May. This Programme is a Garda Youth Diversion Project (GYDP) based work experience initiative for young people. The programme provides those involved with valuable experience and learning, enabling them to establish a good work ethic, gain useful skills and develop as individuals with the aim of preventing them from becoming involved in further criminal or anti-social behaviour. 

The Government’s investment in these community based youth justice initiatives has brought us to a point where we now have a national network of some 105 Garda Youth Diversion Projects incorporating 5 Local Drugs Task Force Projects and 18 Young Persons Probation Projects.  

Today’s conference effectively kicks off the process of reviewing the legal framework. It is really encouraging to see such interest in the area and the great attendance here today. Following on from today’s presentations and discussions, a conference report will be prepared, which will be an invaluable resource for everybody to reflect on and offer their further thinking about possible changes to policy and the law in this area. 

On that note I wish to acknowledge the work and continued efforts of all those working in the youth justice area. I hope that today will give us all a chance to reflect on and appreciate the good work that has been done to date, and to identify positive steps for the future. I am happy to have had the opportunity to attend today, which I am certain will be an insightful and productive day for all concerned. I wish you well in your discussions.