A Child Rights compliant Youth Justice System

We welcome today’s guest post by Sharon Whittaker, Communications Worker at
Include Youth.  Include Youth is an independent organisation which actively promotes the rights, best interests of and best practice with young people at risk.

A Child Rights compliant Youth Justice System

Young people involved with Include Youth’s Young Voices project met with Thomas Hammarberg, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, following a visit to Northern Ireland, as part of a wider visit to the UK in December 2011.

The Commissioner, now former, references many of the issues raised by the young people in his letter to UK Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, Kenneth Clarke, detailing some aspects of his Memorandum of 2008 on the rights of the child with a particular focus on juvenile justice within the UK.

In fact, the letter focused considerably on specific youth justice issues within Northern Ireland, arising out of the discussions with both the young people from Young Voices and those he met through the event hosted by the Human Rights Consortium.  He drew attention to the fact that children and young people under 18 continue to be imprisoned with adults in Hydebank Wood Young Offenders Centre:

‘The Criminal Justice Inspection for Northern Ireland has recommended that all children be removed from Hydebank Wood Young Offenders Centre by 2012.  I hope that it will be possible to implement this recommendation within the foreseen timeframe, also in the light of reports indicating that mental health and educational needs of children are not met in that institution.’

Something we raised in our submission to the Youth Justice Review Team’s Review of the Youth Justice system in Northern Ireland, and again echoed in our response to the consultation stating that the ‘urgency of this issue cannot be overstated.’  We urge the Minister for Justice to expedite delivery of this recommendation.

The Commissioner raised issues in relation to the use of custody including the overuse of remand, the importance of providing high quality education and vocational training to children in custody with a view to their re-integration into society and the need to address accommodation issues for young people leaving custody.  Particular emphasis was placed on the importance of addressing the educational and mental health needs of children in custody, noting that more than two thirds of children in custody here have ‘serious mental health problems, which are at times not met adequately, in part owing to a lack of resources’.

We know from the work we do with young people daily that much of the language used to describe young people conjures up images of fear that can leave them feeling on the periphery of playing an active role in society.

I noted recently three separate occasions in one local weekly title that the collective noun used to describe the young people in each story was ‘gang of youths.’  Surely there are there are better words that could be used to describe a group of children in our local community?

One young person quoted in our young people’s submission to the Youth Justice Review that ‘’cos of the reputation of young people everywhere, they don’t feel like they’re part of their community.’

Something the Commissioner also raised in his letter, recommending both the creation of a code of ethics for journalists and political parties as well as the introduction of child specific clauses to existing legal instruments.

Among the other issues addressed by the Commissioner were the discriminatory use of stop and search against young people by the PSNI (2,500 stop and search operations in the second half of 2011 alone), ongoing concern regarding the non compliance of ASBOs with children’s rights, the holding of DNA samples and the disclosure of criminal records.

Lastly and most importantly, the Commissioner noted that notwithstanding the economic recession and budgetary cuts, there is an obligation on government to ensure that the youth justice system in Northern Ireland is fully child rights compliant. We look forward to the Minister’s response to the Council of Europe’s observations and recommendations.

This Saturday (April 21 2011) Include Youth is hosting a fringe event at the Alliance Party conference where we will be using this communication, and that of the experiences of the young people we work with, to further discuss these issues, which need to be addressed by the Department of Justice and others so that we have an effective youth justice system that can deliver for everyone in Northern Ireland.  We hope some of you will come along to the event and take part in the discussion.