24% of Irish prisoners are aged under 21

Young offenders research in Ireland throws up some interesting debates, writes Psychologist Laura Blowick, in the ‘Garda Review’
24% of Irish prisoners are aged under 21
Stock picture of a youth drinking. 

IN a recent Garda Public Attitude Survey, 76% of respondents rated juvenile crime as a major national problem, secondary only to drug-related and violent crime. However, a review of data from 2009 onwards indicates that there have been year-on-year reductions in the most frequent types of youth offending, including a 41% drop between 2010 and 2013. While the problem of young offending may be decreasing, it is still disproportionately represented in statistics on crime; 12 to 17 year olds account for 9% of the Irish population but youth crime constitutes up to 15% of all crime (excluding traffic offences).

Garda PULSE figures indicate the vast majority of young people grow out of crime, and the majority of youth offenders only offend on one occasion. Young offenders are far more likely to be male and the most common juvenile offences are public order offences or alcohol and drug misuse.

Youth offending is a complex, multi-faceted problem and in order to understand why some youths offend and others do not, researchers have identified key risk factors.

Cumulative exposure to these risk factors dramatically increases a child’s risk of becoming a young offender. For example, a 10-year-old exposed to six or more risk factors is 10 times more likely to commit a violent act by age 18 as a 10-year-old exposed to only one.

Risk factors have been identified in four main areas; individual, family, social and community.

Delivery complications have been linked to later offending behaviour.

One US study noted that 80% of violent offenders rated highly in delivery complications compared to just 47% of non-offenders.

Concentration and attention problems, hyperactivity, impulsivity, and risk taking all have a positive relationship with later violent behaviour. Aggression in children as young as six years has also repeatedly been identified as a reliable predictor of future delinquent behaviour. In fact, the best social behaviour characteristic to predict delinquent behaviour before age 13 appears to be aggression.

One of the strongest predictors of a conviction between ages 10 and 13 was troublesome behaviour between the ages of eight and 10, and those with an earlier arrest were more likely to become a serious, violent or chronic offender by age 18.

In terms of personality, high levels of daring behaviour between eight and 10 years and impulsive, not anxious, boys are more likely to commit delinquent acts at 12 to 13 years old. Finally, poor cognitive development (low verbal IQ and delayed language) has also been identified as a potential risk factor.

Inconsistent parenting, divorce, parental psychopathology, teenage parenthood, and child maltreatment are all family risk factors increasing the probability of juvenile offending.

Children who have been abused or spent time in foster care are also disproportionately likely to become young offenders.

Exposure to family violence increases the probability that young people will engage in delinquent or violent behaviour, and increases their risk for abandoning the home and joining their peers on the street.

However, the strongest predictors of early-onset violence include larger family size and parental antisocial history. Boys with four or more siblings by the age of 10 are twice as likely to offend and having an antisocial sibling increases a child’s likelihood of antisocial behaviours; a risk that is magnified when the siblings are close in age.

Parents of young offenders are eight times more likely to engage in parent-child conflicts involving discipline, have high levels of parental aggression including harsh, punitive discipline, have half as many positive interactions, provide poor supervision and reinforce negative behaviours.

Aggressive behaviour (including bullying), and a lack of commitment to school (including truancy) have been linked with delinquency. Poor academic performance is positively related to the prevalence, onset, frequency and seriousness of youth offending. Additionally, disorganised schools with stricter, more punitive discipline approaches have been linked to negative consequences for at-risk youth including increased delinquent behaviour.

Youth offending is largely a group phenomenon and up to three-quarters of all juvenile offences are committed by group/gang members. The influence of antisocial peers, their acceptance of delinquent behaviour and the influence of peer pressure for deviance should not be underestimated. In fact, a key predictor variable of young offending in 12 to 14 year olds is the presence of antisocial peers; a relationship that is magnified when young people have little parental interaction.

Additionally, young aggressive children who are rejected by peers are at a significantly greater risk for later chronic antisocial behaviours but spending time with peers who disapprove of delinquent behaviour may curb later violence.

It is a well documented finding that living in a disadvantaged neighbourhood where there are high levels of poverty and crime increases the risk of involvement in serious crime for all children growing up there.

Juveniles living within high-crime neighbourhoods are often exposed to norms favourable to crime and live in communities that have weak social control networks resulting from isolation among residents and high residential turnover which in turn allows criminal activity to go unmonitored.

The age at which a child is exposed to specific risk factors is also critical. In early life, individual and family factors are fundamental but as the child ages, community and social factors begin to play a more central role. Although many young offenders share common risk factors, the particular combination of risk factors varies from child to child.

Protective factors are considered to moderate the effects of exposure to known risks and include; being female, resilient temperament, positive disposition, prosocial behaviour, high intelligence, warm relationship with at least one parent, and positive relationships with teachers. Importantly, risk factors are correlational not causal and research suggests that it is the complex interaction between key factor variables that is important.

This may be the key to understanding why some children exposed to risk factors do not offend. Armed with these findings, policy makers have attempted to address the issue of youth offending by addressing key risk factors, but is it working?

Some 24% of Irish prisoners in custody are under 21 and 20% of juvenile offenders before the Dublin District Court are sentenced to some form of detention on their first conviction. However, research has indicated that of all offenders, those who serve a custodial sentence have the highest recidivist rates, especially young male offenders.

Unsurprisingly, there is growing evidence that alternatives to detention (including community sanctions and opportunity for restorative justice) are more effective at rehabilitating young offenders; a promising finding for the 5% of youths referred to the Garda Diversion Programme each year. Those receiving alternatives to detention have lower offence rates and of those that do reoffend, they do so less frequently and with less serious offences.

Encouragingly, a recent Dáil report also found lower recidivist rates for the Juvenile Liaison Officer Scheme compared to reformatories.

While risk factors may not be easily changed or within the remit of the youth justice system to address e.g. socio economic status, these findings suggest that programmes addressing risk factors and strengthening protective factors are more effective than detention when dealing with the complex issue of young offending.

However, further investigation is warranted to explore the complex interaction between the factors mitigating youth offending and continuing to explore why some youth exposed to multiple risk factors offend and others do not.

This article first appeared in Garda Review. For more see www.gardareview.ie

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