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Ministers unveil strategy to steer ‘hard to reach’ children away from crime

Law Reform Minister James Browne said there should be a ‘no wrong door’ policy when young people are in difficulty.

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Law Reform Minister James Browne said there should be a ‘no wrong door’ policy when young people are in difficulty (Brian Lawless/PA)

Law Reform Minister James Browne said there should be a ‘no wrong door’ policy when young people are in difficulty (Brian Lawless/PA)

Law Reform Minister James Browne said there should be a ‘no wrong door’ policy when young people are in difficulty (Brian Lawless/PA)

The Government’s new youth justice strategy aims to steer “hard to reach” vulnerable children and young people away from crime, the Law Reform Minister has said.

James Browne said young people should benefit from a “no wrong door” policy when in difficulty.

The junior minister launched the strategy alongside Justice Minister Helen McEntee at Government Buildings on Thursday.

Developed under the guidance of an expert steering group, which has been in place since early 2019,  the six-year plan will see Garda Youth Diversion Projects (GYDPs) expanded into every county in Ireland.

As some areas do not currently have a GYDP service, the strategy proposes to achieve full national coverage within two years, principally by extending the operating area of existing projects, but a small number of new projects will also be required.

There are currently 105 projects in operation across the country.

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Speaking at the launch, Mr Browne said: “The impact of youth crime can be quite serious, not just on those children and young people committing their crime but on their families and on their communities.

“So it’s in everybody’s interests that we tackle those hard-to-reach young people who are getting involved in criminal activities.

The Wexford TD said that every year about 10,000 of 1.2 million children and young people in the country come into contact with the justice system and that about 1,000 of them end up being prosecuted in our courts.

“There’s trauma, social inclusion and poverty issues in their backgrounds,” the Fianna Fail TD said.

“The youth justice strategy is about extending the services that are already there, bringing them wider and targeting children before they even come into contact with the justice system who are at risk – 8-11 year olds – and for those who are coming into contact putting greater services in there.”

The youth justice system generally interacts with 12 to 17-year-olds.

He said many will “grow out” of offending behaviour as they mature into adulthood but a “very small but hard-to-reach cohort” engage in serious or persistent criminal offending, a significant amount of which is drug-related and connected to the activities of organised criminal networks.

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Justice Minister Helen McEntee said the strategy aims to address the ‘hard-to-reach’ cohort of young people at risk (Brian Lawless/PA)

Justice Minister Helen McEntee said the strategy aims to address the ‘hard-to-reach’ cohort of young people at risk (Brian Lawless/PA)

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Justice Minister Helen McEntee said the strategy aims to address the ‘hard-to-reach’ cohort of young people at risk (Brian Lawless/PA)

The Justice Minister described the strategy as a “living, breathing, document” underpinned by evidence and research.

Ms McEntee said: “The aim is to get to those children who are hard to reach, who are most at risk and it is about adopting an approach that is never leaving a child behind and making sure those who are involved in criminal activity, that we do everything we can to support them, their families and community to find another path and we steer children from an early age away from a life of crime.”

The Fine Gael minister also said that legislation is in the pipeline aimed at criminalising people who coerce children for the purposes of crime.

“We need to support those young people and children to get them away from that life of crime but we also have to target those gangs who are grooming those children to bring them in,” she said.

She added she wanted to ensure that offenders are not just criminalised for the criminal act itself but also for the grooming of the child as a separate offence.

The minister said she hopes the legislation will be enacted next year.

Youth Work Ireland, which runs almost 40 Garda diversion projects, said the strategy “continues in the right direction” and “clearly marks” a potential transition in thinking about how the justice system treats “some of the most vulnerable, at-risk young people in our society”.

Michael McLoughlin, head of advocacy at the youth organisation, said the courts and detention should only be used as a “last resort”.

“For low level offences, community-based sanctions, restorative justice and other means should be prioritised,” he said.

“The need for a joined-up and holistic approach arises again and again in the document. Our experience is of running youth services that do precisely this and engage with young people under a variety of policy headings and in conjunction with several agencies and departments across policy headings.

“More than any, we see the need for a joined-up approach beyond the silos. We also have seen that regardless of a variety of plans and aspirations this approach is rarely in evidence in delivery by the State and those of us who do work across these boundaries encounter a lot of obstacles.

“In all matters of inter-agency working and alignment the key question will be who decides in the final instance.”


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