Youth Diversion – a thematic inspection of youth diversion in the criminal justice system in Norther

Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland (CJI) has today (Thursday 28 July 2011) published the findings of its latest inspection report on the use of youth diversion by the criminal justice system.

The inspection found that with a quarter of the population under the age of 18, diverting young people where appropriate away from the formal justice system is an important element of the overall approach to youth justice.
“Inspectors observed that the approach adopted in Northern Ireland is one largely based on restorative practice which seeks to avoid criminalising young people early in their lives,” said Brendan McGuigan, Deputy Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice in Northern Ireland.
“Youth Diversion based on restorative practices, is well embedded in policing principles through the system of informed warnings and restorative cautions which are administered by the Police Service for Northern Ireland, Youth Diversion Officers. The re-introduction of ‘police discretion’ which allows Officers to deal with low-level incidents involving young people promptly, without recourse to the formal justice system is also welcomed,” added Mr McGuigan.
“In addition, the appointment of specialist youth prosecutors by the Public Prosecution Service will ensure that any decisions taken about how best to deal with a criminal offence is made in the knowledge of all the relevant facts,” Mr McGuigan commented. He further highlighted the lead being taken by the Youth Justice Agency in developing restorative practice and the international repute gained by its Youth Conference Service.
“These approaches by the criminal justice agencies are beneficial as they enable many young people who may never come to the attention of the criminal justice system again to go on and become effective members of society,” he said.
Approximately 1% of young people who commit crimes and go on to receive custodial sentences in Northern Ireland – a figure which compares favourably with England and Wales where over the last three years between 3%-5% of young people involved in crime receive a period in custody.
“While Inspectors welcome this approach and the steps taken to minimise the number of young people receiving a period of detention, the report found that the low age of criminal responsibility in Northern Ireland, which currently sits at 10 years of age, was an issue,” said Mr McGuigan.
As a result, Inspectors recommended that the issue of the age of criminal responsibility be included in the review of the youth justice system which will report before the end of this summer period.
The Deputy Chief Inspector added that Inspectors had also called for the treatment of young people from either a ‘looked-after or cared for’ background to be monitored to ensure that young people in such situations received equal treatment.
Young people from a ‘looked-after or cared for’ background are currently over-represented in the formal justice system therefore it is important to ensure they are receiving the same level of leeway they would experience in a family environment and that prosecution or reporting is not a first response to offending behaviour.
In an effort to strengthen existing arrangements, Inspectors have called for greater buy-in and co-ordination of effort across all Government departments to be incorporated into the 10-year Strategy for Children and Young People published by the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister.
“Cross-departmental governance of this Strategy has the potential to enable the integration of all approaches to youth diversion to address the main contributory factors to youth offending and re-offending,” said Mr McGuigan.
“This is particularly important as preventing young people from becoming involved in offending behaviour or diverting them away from the formal justice system is not just an issue for the criminal justice system but one for the whole of society,” he concluded.