19 Jan 2005

Children and Young People in the Criminal Justice System – No excuses, but there are reasons!

Speech by Nigel Williams, Commissioner for Children and Young People for Northern Ireland, at the CJINI Stakeholder Conference, Belfast Hilton Hotel, on 19 January 2005.

My job as Commissioner is to “safeguard and promote the rights and best interests of children and young people”. The scope of the job includes all aspects of children’s lives, and every part of Northern Ireland. I am concerned with all those under the age of 18, and under 21 if they are disabled or have been in the care system.

A particular issue at the time of the legislation going through the Assembly was whether the Commissioner’s responsibilities should include looking at how the criminal justice system impacted on children. Should the Commissioner have the right to look at individual complaints or instigate investigations which might involve the police, the courts, the juvenile justice centre or Hydebank young offenders centre?

The Assembly was very clear in its view that the Commissioner should take such an interest, and the legislation was then framed to include it. The relevant criminal justice and policing authorities are included in Part II of Schedule 1 of the NICCY Order. If I plan to undertake a formal investigation into such authorities there are some differences in how this should be conducted – reduced powers to summons witnesses and enter premises.

So, I and my staff are concerned with children and young people who are in touch with the criminal justice system. We are very aware however, that there is already quite a crowded landscape of public bodies – inspectorates and complaints bodies – who have an interest in this area. There is not only the Criminal Justice Inspectorate who are hosting today’s event, but also the Social Services Inspectorate, the Police Ombudsman, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, the Prison Ombudsman, the Education and Training Inspectorate and so on…

Thus my staff and I are looking very carefully at what our own role should be. In some cases we will be setting up formal memoranda of understanding with a number of the other bodies to ensure that we sort out clear lines of communication and co-operation. That work is already underway. A key principle for us is that we want to work co-operatively were possible to achieve the best possible outcome for children. We want to ensure, for example, that information that we may glean as part of our work should where appropriate, inform the work of Inspection bodies.

I suppose what may be unique about our role and perception as the Office of the Commissioner is that we are exclusively concerned with children and young people, and that we want to look at how the rights and best interests affect the whole of children’s lives.

Thus in the world of criminal justice, my concern is for the child as the victim of crime; my concern is for the child as a witness to a crime; my concern is for the child who may become involved in criminal activity and what can prevent that; my concern is for the young person who may be being investigated as a potential suspect for a crime; the young person who is the accused in court; the young person who is convicted and serving a sentence – whether in the community or in custody.

My concern is for the communities impacted by young people’s anti social activity and for the young people themselves. My concern is with those statutory and voluntary bodies who are trying to prevent young people from getting involved in crime.

Thus if you like, I want to have a bird’s eye view of the impact of the criminal justice system as a whole on young people, and do what I can to avoid them becoming involved with that system. I fully recognize that in this area sometimes there will be a conflict between the rights of one young person and the rights of another young person. My office will have to reach careful judgements and strike a balance between those rights.

Linda Moore has shared with you some of the very important results of the research which NICCY commissioned into the rights of children and young people in Northern Ireland. As a result of that research my staff and I decided that we should propose “children and crime” as one of the 14 priority areas for my office. We have been consulting on these areas for the last three months, and are currently considering the [900] responses we have had to our proposals.

I cannot say yet what our final list of priorities will be, but I think it is fair to say that I would be surprised if “children and crime” was not included. We will then have to consider what aspect of the issues raised by children and crime we should tackle first, and what actions will be most effective.

Many people’s view of my office is associated with our decision last May to seek a judicial review of the Government’s lack of consultation on their proposal to introduce Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBO’s). Some people misinterpreted our action as meaning that we were against any action to respond to anti social behaviour, and that somehow we did not believe that such behaviour by young people was an issue.

Let me set the record straight. Anti social behaviour is a very real issue to which there has to be a response. The concern of my office was that ASBO’s were being seen as the only response, and one that needed to be introduced quickly without proper consultation. We regret the decision of the Court to refuse our application for judicial review.

But it is a fair question to ask – What is the view of the Commissioner for Children and Young People about those under 18’s who get involved in crime, some of whom do torment local communities?

My answer to that question can be summed up in the statement “No excuses – but there are reasons!” No excuses, because the law is the law, and a crime is a crime. It is very important that young people like anyone else realise the acceptable boundaries to behaviour. That is why as a democratic society we submit ourselves to the rule of law. That is why we have the whole criminal justice system to protect us.

There is a choice involved in committing a crime. Children and young people, like the rest of us, are not automatons. What I believe we must do is to try to understand why young people make the choices they do, and then help them make much better choices. We must respond to the reasons that lie behind the crimes that young people commit.

If we do not think about the causes of crime amongst young people, then we will simply end up focusing our system on when and how we should lock them up. And however good our custodial establishments may be, I know of few people who would argue that they are the best means of addressing offending behaviour.

I want to suggest to you a few of the factors that do offer partial explanations for young people who get involved in crime And I emphasise again that I am not offering excuses, but issues that we need to address.

Firstly, young people with mental health problems, and especially those who become involved in drugs. I noticed that Professor Rod Morgan, the Chief Executive of the Youth Justice Board in England and Wales, was speaking on this very issue last week. In an interview with the Independent newspaper he expressed profound concern about the number of young people with mental health problems who end up in custody. He linked this with the worrying level of youth suicide in custody in England and Wales.

We must do more to address young people’s mental health needs, and find other ways of helping them cope than locking them up. It is fair to say that a number of young people in Northern Ireland are currently in custody because the courts felt there was nowhere else they could be sent, even though they recognized it was not ideal. My draft priorities also include young people with mental health problems, as we have particular challenges in Northern Ireland about lack of resources for dealing with this problem.

My second explanatory factor is young people with learning disabilities or other conditions that affect their ability to socialise and live a normal life. I spent a fascinating evening last week with four young people with ADD or ADHD (Attention Deficit Disorder or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). One young man spoke very powerfully about how he had been in five different schools trying to find appropriate help. At one stage he felt like giving up.

He spoke openly about the strong temptation to hang out with a gang who were involved in car crime and other anti-social activities. He expressed his view that many of those involved in this kind of activity were disillusioned with school for one reason or another, many had some form of learning difficulty, and not enough help was available.

We must therefore ask ourselves if enough is being done to help those with learning difficulties and other behavioural conditions. Addressing their need will not only help them as individuals to learn and have hope for the future – but it will also benefit society in preventing them from engaging in anti social behaviour. This area of special educational needs is another of my proposed priorities.

My third explanatory factor is perhaps the most controversial - lack of appropriate play and leisure facilities and activities in which young people can be involved. One young person said to me during a recent SHOUT consultation meeting “Does the government not realise that investing in play and leisure will help reduce youth crime?” I have been excited to learn about some tremendous projects that youth organizations and the youth service are involved in to try to engage young people in activities that they will enjoy, and which will divert them from hanging around street corners getting into trouble.

I commend all those organizations for their work. Some literally meet young people on the streets and offer them alternative activities. I was hearing recently about how some youth workers from the NEELB went out, met young people on street corners, and formed them into a football team. This activity alone gave a new focus for those young people’s lives. Play and leisure is another issue I have proposed in my priorities

In this short speech I cannot give you a comprehensive explanation for youth crime. I have not spoken about issues like family breakdown or living in the care system, about the impact of poverty and of addictions. I have simply suggested that a number of factors come into play, and that we need to address those factors as well as responding to the outcomes of young people’s criminal behaviour.

I repeat again that I am not offering excuses, but am calling on all the agencies here to continue to work together in addressing some of the underlying causes of crime. It is in all our interests to reduce the number of young people in touch with the criminal justice system, and to expand the options for those who do offend so that custody is not the first choice.

But I would also pledge that I will seek to advocate for and protect the rights of those who are victims of crime and those who end up committing offences.

I look forward to working with you all to help ensure that children and young people are protected and supported, and most of all prevented from becoming involved in activities they will later regret.

Thank you.