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The modern juvenile justice system in Ireland has developed slowly since the turn of the century against the backdrop of the 2001 Act which represented the first major legislative reform of juvenile justice since the 1908 Children Act. The absence of a central body to implement legislative change until the establishment of the IYJS in 2006, followed by a prolonged period of economy austerity commencing in 2008, were key impediments to the reform process. Notwithstanding these factors, the system has progressed and common narratives and shared aspirations of diversion, rehabilitation and reintegration exist across the key agencies with responsibility for children in conflict with the law. As outlined in this chapter, challenges exist to ensure that the law in theory and principle is implemented in practice to improve outcomes for children.

The language of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is evident in the legislative framework for the juvenile justice system in Ireland and in many of the policies and practices that emanate from it. Key among these is the emphasis on diversion, children’s participation, information provision and the use of detention as a measure of last resort. In contrast, the decision to abolish the presumption of doli incapax and reduce to 10 years the age of criminal responsibility for children charged with serious criminal matters exposes the contradictions of the system. The juvenile justice system in Ireland is not dissimilar from its international contemporaries in combining a dominant philosophy (welfare) with a hybrid mix of other influences that include restorative justice, actuarial justice, rehabilitation, reintegration and rights-based approaches. A notable feature of the Irish system, and reflecting the dominance of the welfare ethos, is the high levels of discretion afforded to criminal justice managers and practitioners in their decision-making on children’s cases. Eadie and Canton (2002) argue that a high level of discretion must be balanced with a corresponding level of accountability to mitigate actual or perceived unfair or discriminatory practices. Their argument resonates in the context of recent research on the juvenile justice systems in Ireland and Northern Ireland which noted that ‘increased levels of discretion enjoyed by practitioners ... did not necessarily result in a more “lenient” outcome or experience for the young person’ (Hamilton et al. 2016:13-14). It suggests that while discretion plays an important role in decision-making given the differences in children’s level of maturity, cognitive understanding, life circumstances and circumstances of their offending, caution is required.

The modest size of the population of detained children is a positive outcome from reform of the juvenile justice system notwithstanding the aforementioned issue of disproportionate numbers of children on remand in the detention system. The legislation is credited with providing the structure from which the principle of using detention as a measure of last resort has been embedded in policy and professional practice. No specific sentencing guidance exists, rather the process has been evolved through what may be described as a shared collective understanding of the values underpinning the 2001 Act. The detention of children is the area of the juvenile justice system that has witnessed the most fundamental change in recent years arising from the amalgamation of existing children detention schools into a single facility and the broadening out of the system to include older and potentially more criminally involved cases. The National Children Detention Centre which is scheduled to be fully operational in 2016 marks a significant milestone in the development of the juvenile justice system in Ireland by finally ending the practice of detaining children in adult facilities almost 15 years after being first outlined in law.

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