Republican News · Thursday 06 April 2000

[An Phoblacht]

Restorative justice in new Children Bill

A Bill debated in Leinster House this week provides a new framework for the development of the juvenile justice system. It seeks to protect children against those who have custody, charge or care of them, and provides for family conferences and other measures to deal with ``out-of-control non-offending children''.

Speaking in the Dáil on Wednesday, 5 April, Sinn Féin TD Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin welcomed the general thrust of the Bill, which places emphasis on the rights of the child and introduces new ideas. He said:

``For the first time in the legal system, the idea of restorative justice has been introduced and that has significance beyond this Bill. I would like to see it developed, monitored and introduced in other legislation as a real alternative to imprisonment. That opens up a whole new vista and debate to which I look forward.

``Such alternatives to imprisonment must be developed as the rate of committal in this State is disgracefully high. I have spoken before in this House about the scandalous conditions in the hell-hole that is the male section of Mountjoy Jail. I would like to see the more enlightened aspects of this Bill with regard to imprisonment applied on the wider field.''

``The raising of the age of criminal responsibility from 7 to 12 is a central provision of the Bill. It means that children will be taken out of the criminal justice system and will come directly under the care of the Probation and Welfare Service. The Sinn Féin TD said that the implementation of this was vital:

``While the reforms are progressive, and I am pleased to have the opportunity to acknowledge that, the reality however at present is that the Probation Service is grossly underfunded and understaffed. The majority of Probation and Welfare Officers have a caseload of up to 70 clients. If the provisions of this Bill are to be implemented in full, then this caseload will inevitably increase. That is a major concern to me.

``In 1998, Probation Officers were on the verge of taking industrial action due to the gross underfunding and massive caseload. At the 11th hour, the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform made assurances that staffing levels would be increased. Unless this actually happens, the provisions in this Bill cannot and will not be implemented.

``The costs involved in setting up the Special Care Units provided for are massive. I am fully aware of this as a new Special Care Facility to cater to the needs of four Health Board Regions is now earmarked for the town of Castleblayney in my own home county. While they are very necessary, the reality is that unless provision is made for effective community-based projects, early intervention with at-risk children and the full range of preventative measures, then these problems and the attendant costs of special care will continue to escalate.''

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