Check Against Delivery

Remarks by Minister for Justice and Equality, Frances Fitzgerald TD

at the 2nd Annual Criminal Justice Agencies Conference,

‘Engagement with Young People’

Dublin Castle

15 July 2015

Good morning ladies and gentlemen.

I am delighted to be here this morning to open the 2nd Annual Irish Criminal Justice Agencies Conference.

I would like to thank Maura Butler and the ACJRD for again partnering with the Justice Sector in order to put together today’s event. Thank you also to Commissioner Noirín O’Sullivan and all in An Garda Síochána, which took on the role of lead agency in planning this year’s conference.

I am greatly supportive of this annual conference series as providing a forum for reflection and engagement on key issues facing the criminal justice system and the public it serves. By selecting a specific topic for each event, we have an opportunity to drill down into the issue and approach it from multiple perspectives.

As many of you know, the inaugural conference was held last September in Wheatfield Prison, and focused on penal reform. We had an engaging and wide ranging discussion, and one which was directly relevant to the programme of penal reform which is underway. This provided an excellent foundation for the conference series and I can tell from reviewing today’s programme that we are well placed to continue in the same vein.

Today’s conference topic – Engagement with Young People – is one which has been close to the heart of the ACJRD since its foundation, and is certainly close to mine. We are currently undergoing an unprecedented period of change and innovation in how the State works with, supports and engages with children and young people. Our Constitution now explicitly recognises the rights of children as well as the principle of a child’s best interest being the paramount consideration in certain key proceedings affecting their welfare. The first ever overarching policy framework for meeting children’s needs has been introduced. This framework, ‘Better Outcomes : Brighter Futures’ establishes a shared set of outcomes towards which all Government Departments and Agencies will work. At the heart of the changes which are underway is the establishment of Túsla as a new Child and Family Agency, bringing a focus to how we provide services, and responding to the difficult lessons we have learned from past inquiries and the failings identified, in which fragmented services loomed large.

Our work in this area is also increasingly informed by real evidence as to what works, and founded on high quality data about the lives of children and young people. It is also informed, more than ever, by the voices of children themselves, at the level of individual interactions with services but also in terms of broader civic engagement. This is addressed in detail in the new National Strategy on Children and Young People’s Participation in Decision Making.

With this in mind, I would like to particularly welcome the many representatives here today from youth organisations as well as the other young people who are participating in today’s conference.

I am optimistic and determined about the changes we are making. But I am under no illusions about the challenges we face, and the many areas which need improvement. I expect that today’s presentations and discussion will very rightly highlight those areas where problems are faced, and will call on all of us to think about how we can work together to overcome them.

Today’s presentations and workshops explore how engagement with young people is manifested in the area of criminal justice. This area gives rise to its own complexities. The nature of the engagement – whether it is a young person who is a victim, or someone getting in trouble with the law, is on the one hand a charged and emotional one, but is also framed by the structure and formalities of the legal system, as it applies to young people. I should make clear of course that the two categories of interaction with the justice system are by no means mutually exclusive. We know that for some young people in particular, involvement in crime takes place as part of overall and chaotic set of personal and environmental circumstances, where they themselves are victimised and face daily and disturbing risks.

Our youth justice system recognises this, following the principles set down in the Children Act 2001. This system is best considered in its entirety, from the Garda Diversion Programme through to the Children Courts and the Children Detention Schools. The Irish Youth Justice Service (IYJS) is responsible for leading and driving reform in this area. The remit of IYJS is to improve the delivery of youth justice services and reduce youth offending. This challenge is met by focusing on diversion and rehabilitation involving greater use of community-based interventions and the promotion of initiatives to deal with young people who offend.

A new Action plan has been agreed, as a follow up to the original National Youth Justice Strategy 2008-2010. The Plan sits within both the ‘Better Outcomes : Brighter Futures Framework’, for which my colleague Minister Reilly is responsible, as well as forming part of my Department’s Strategy Statement. That Statement recognises that youth offending requires a proactive approach which includes working collaboratively, strengthening evidence, and further developing targeted interventions to divert young people from the criminal justice system.

The focus of the Action Plan will be to continue the downward trends in high volume crime and reduce the need for detention. The Plan involves evidence-informed targeted interventions to achieve better outcomes for children who get into trouble with the law, leading to safer communities. Importantly, the voice and experiences of children involved in the youth justice system have influenced the development of these interventions.

This plan is being delivered in conjunction with a range of partners including An Garda Síochána, Probation Service, Courts Service; Tusla, HSE, the Children Detention Schools, as well as the management and staff of community based organisations delivering Garda Youth Diversion Projects and Young Person Probation Community Projects. All of the key partners and stakeholders in this work are here today, and I want to recognise the excellent day to day work which takes place in each of these services, as well as the many people who work with young people on a voluntary basis.

Providing these frontline services with the means to help young people is of course critical. Earlier this year I announced the provision of funding to extend Garda Youth Diversion projects to 10 new areas, and to make possible the recruitment of 16 additional staff in existing projects. In both cases, resources are being allocated where trends in youth crime and demographics suggest they are needed most. These resources will enhance the range of social inclusion measures available to support young people coming to the attention of An Garda Síochána, particularly in areas of economic and social disadvantage. An amount of €2.8m in total has been allocated from Dormant Accounts Funding to support additional youth justice related programmes in the community, bringing funding in the area close to €20m annually.

Progress also continues to be made on measures to realign existing community resources to best address local youth crime needs. The Irish Youth Justice Service is working closely with An Garda Síochána and community based organisations in a number of areas to examine the approach to service delivery with a view to reaching areas not currently serviced. This is also supported by the capacity-building measures ongoing for the Garda Youth Diversion Projects including the roll out during 2015 of a new risk assessment support which was piloted in a number of projects during 2014. This new measure will improve the ability of youth justice workers to target key areas of risk and need for the young people they work with.

As part of the Action Plan, we want to become more adept in understanding and intervening in more serious crime offending patterns, and we want to improve how we address the behaviour and needs of the children involved. I therefore welcome the fact that earlier this year the Garda Commissioner put in place a review group to examine the operation of the statutory Garda Youth Diversion Programme. The group includes senior representatives from An Garda Síochána, the Office of the DPP, Probation Service, the Irish Youth Justice Service, and Academia. The review is focusing on the examination of the application and administration of the Diversion Programme, relevant legislation, research on international best practice on diversion and will make recommendations on the area. I look forward to the report of the group which should be available by year end.

I am also pleased to see on the agenda for today’s conference issues relating to how best to address the needs of children and young people as victims. Bringing forward legislation and implementing measures to give effect to the EU Victims Directive is a top priority in my Department. As part of this programme, special measures will apply with respect to children. These will build on provisions already in place with respect to the investigation of crimes against children, including those governing the evidence of child victims and witnesses, as well as legislation aimed at improving child protection.

I especially note that one of today’s workshop sessions is addressing the question of online child sexual exploitation, an area of growing concern here and abroad. I attended the most recent Ministerial Conference of the Global Alliance against Child Sexual Abuse Online in Washington last year and I also participated in the more recent Global Summit on Tackling Online Child Sexual Exploitation which took place in London. At both these events it was clear that there is significant work being undertaken by governments, industry, law enforcement, child protection services and non-governmental agencies in developing both national and international responses. It was also clear, however, that there is the potential for further more effective responses through cross sectoral collaboration and partnership approaches. This is an area which I would like to explore further. Earlier this year I convened a meeting of internet providers, social media companies and An Garda Síochána to discuss the outcome of the Summit and also to inform proposals to further develop cooperation and partnership in the fight against online child sexual exploitation.

This work is continuing in tandem with proposals to further enhance how our criminal law addresses the problem of child sexual exploitation. We are already moving ahead on this front in the forthcoming Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill. This Bill proposes wide ranging reforms of the law, including stronger sanctions aimed at protecting children from sexual exploitation. The Bill includes new criminal offences to protect children against grooming, including online, as well as new & strengthened offences to tackle child pornography. These new offences will greatly strengthen Ireland’s laws to protect children from sexual exploitation.

I spoke earlier of the unprecedented change underway in how we work with children and young people. I want to conclude my opening remarks by saying that the other side of the equation addressed in today’s conference, the criminal justice system, is itself also undergoing unprecedented change. The strategic transformation programme underway in An Garda Síochána, the joint Probation Service and Irish Prisons Service strategy, the forthcoming establishment of a Police Authority, and the implementation of the Victims Directive all illustrate this change and share common characteristics. My Department is playing a central leadership role in these transformation processes, and is itself implementing it own programme of change to respond to the complex and evolving challenges it faces in meeting the needs of the community. We often speak of the need for improved co-ordination within the criminal justice system and of the importance of taking a whole of system view of how individuals interact with that system. To better address this, a Criminal Justice Strategic Committee has been established comprising the heads of the relevant organisations to provide collaborative leadership across the Criminal Justice system. I expect that as it develops its work programme, many of the issues we are discussing today will be of particular interest.

Finally, I would simply like to thank you all for your participation here today. As I have said before, the ACJRD has a long tradition of bringing together a wide range of officials, practitioners, academics, NGO's and many others with an interest in review and reform of the criminal justice system. It provides an excellent and informal forum for the exchange of ideas and experience and I would like to again pay tribute to the contribution it has made over many years. I wish you well in your discussion and look forward to the conference outcome and to continuing to work with you all in improving how we engage with and meet the needs of young people.