- 21 Nov 07
Thousands of adolescents go before under-age courts in this country every year. In this exclusive dispatch, we report from the frontline of the criminal justice system as it applies to teenagers.
A staggering 17,000 teenagers are arrested on average each year – with up to 2,000 of these cases being brought before children’s courts in Ireland, according to the latest statistics available. The majority of these cases are heard at the Smithfield Children’s Court, which is officially known as ‘District Court 55’. Every day, a large crowd of youths, wearing the latest tracksuits, can be found gathering outside the court, swapping war stories and smoking endless amounts of
cigarettes, while waiting for somebody inside who is about to face the music for their crimes.
They seem to treat it all as a bit of a laugh, watching up to 20 or 30 youths coming and going from squad cars and prison vans as they file past into the court. Some of them can be heard shouting, ‘Wha’ you up for this time, Joe? Did ya get caught joyriding again?”
“No – it’s for GBH,” comes the reply.
Inside, it is not like your typical courthouse. Even the judge doesn't wear formal garb. The tiny court, which is not much bigger than a 12ft x 11ft bedroom, is steadily filling up with that day’s cases. There is a second, adjacent courtroom, which is only called into action when there is a major backlog. The only other room is a filthy toilet – equipped with ‘blue lights’ to prevent drugs activity.
The majority of the crimes coming before this court are either petty theft, alcohol-related or motoring offences, but there has been an increase of murders and rapes committed by under 18s. There have been two murder cases this year at the Smithfield court. Also, a 16-year-old boy was convicted for his first offence – a random and brutal rape attack on a woman in Dublin’s south inner city.
For the past six years, Tom Tuite, the author of a best-selling book Minor Offences, has been covering the children’s court in Dublin on a full-time basis. It is a difficult and disillusioning beat to cover. There are obvious issues: Tuite points out that it is not unusual for an offender, who is out on bail, to reappear before the court with several more charges while the verdict is still pending on the original case. Interestingly, he has noticed a trend amongst defendants who have accumulated a series of charge sheets to suddenly plead guilty when confronted with certain judges. “It’s no secret that all judges are different and some are ‘softer’ than others. So naturally defendants will plead guilty before the judges they perceive to be softer, in the expectation of getting a more lenient sentence,” he comments.
The issue of bail is a difficult one. “When it’s clear that no effort is being made by the young person and charges are accumulating, then detention must be looked at,” he says. “But if there is clear evidence of the pattern of offending behaviour changing – then bail is of course deserved. Also, it is necessary in a lot of cases for bail to be granted to allow young people to take part in training courses or addiction counselling. If successful, these will pay dividends in the long run.”
Not surprisingly, as Tuite points out, the majority of the teenagers come from disadvantaged backgrounds.
"Most offenders come from pockets of urban environments which have huge social problems. A lot of the young offenders lack family support. Family break-ups – or severe domestic issues where kids do not have the benefit of a wider family network to step in to help – often result in youngsters going astray. Parental apathy can also be a factor.”
The vast majority of those arrested are early school leavers. A recent study found that only 14% were still in school at the time of their appearance before the Children’s Court.
“Many of the kids fall out of the education system at a very early age. We need to keep them in school for starters,” Tom points out, “or to bring those who have left back into the system.”
The bottom line is, surely, that there is political neglect.
“The government should work to fully implement the 2001 Children Act, which provides a range of measures to help steer young offenders away from crime,” Tuite insists.
But he also believes that parents need to take responsibility. “It is clear that some of the parents look at their kids with rose-tinted glasses,” said Tuite. “Some go as far as to facilitate their kids’ criminality, but they are a minority. Many parents don’t even bother to turn up to their children’s court cases, even though they are obliged to by law. And few volunteer to pay compensation to their kids’ victims, such as in car crime offences or acts of criminal damage.
“Sadly, a lot of the parents seem more upset that their children have been arrested than that they have committed a crime. Obviously it’s easy to ‘blame the parents’, a catch-cry so beloved of politicians, but that's not fair. Many of them have seen their children turn to crime despite their best efforts.”
Minor Offences by Tom Tuite,/i> is out now, published by Gill & MacMillan.