In addition to the general review of the Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS) that is currently in progress, there is a second review taking place regarding the Youth Justice System. This review was undertaken as a part of the Hillsborough Castle Agreement and was formally announced by Justice Minister David Ford in November of 2010. The review team consists of chair John Graham, Director of the Police Foundation for England and Wales, Dr. Stella Perrott, former head of the Care and Justice Division in the Scottish Government, and Kathleen Marshall, Scotland’s first Commissioner for Children and Young People. The report is due to be released for public consultation sometime this month.
Given the serious issues that are being considered in this review, many organisations that promote the well-being of young people and work with ‘troubled’ or ‘at risk’ youths in their communities are pressing hard to have their concerns heard by the review team. Two of those groups, Include Youth and the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action (NICVA), came together today to host a forum for practitioners in the field to contribute their thoughts on the Youth Justice System review.
One area of focus was the relationship between Northern Ireland’s youth and the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). Conversations revolved around the level of trust there is between young people and the police, and what issues are currently impacting that trust: the prevalence of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs), the use of stop-and-search powers on young people, and particularly a new practice that the PSNI are piloting regionally called “Speedy Justice.”
Speedy Justice is a new set of procedures that the PSNI has recently adopted in three police districts, including ones that cover Belfast, Omagh, Dungannon, and South Tyrone.
Essentially, Speedy Justice is a programme that allows for a greater level of discretion by an individual police officer as to the action that should be taken after a minor incident. According to the PSNI, Speedy Justice “allows for minor offences to be dealt with in a way that meets the need of a victim and is not reliant simply on prosecuting an offender.” This includes consulting with the victim at the scene, taking into account the offender’s criminal history, and the severity of the crime itself. Not all incidents can be dealt with in this manner, and of those that are eligible, the PSNI estimates Speedy Justice is used roughly 8% of the time.
This programme also includes a provision for an “Immediate Caution Scheme” that allows an officer to phone an advice line regarding the issuing of cautions, so one may be given immediately, in place of going through the bureaucracy of the Public Prosecution Service.
Some are concerned that, particularly where young people are involved, allowing for on-the-scene discretion of a police officer will open the door to abuses of power. If there are not safeguards in place that are provided by mandatory regulations, removing justice from the hands of the officer and placing it into the broader system, who is to say that youth encounters with the police will not deteriorate as a result?
On the other side of the discussion are those that believe that Speedy Justice could be positive for young people who commit minor offences, for the simple reason that if this procedure is used it does not result in a criminal record being opened. First-time offenders, youths committing one-offs, can avoid being placed into the Youth Justice System and all of the difficulties that action can carry with it – obstacles to employment, the stigma of having a criminal history, fees associated with court and fines, and more.
Considering the current relationship between young people and the police in Northern Ireland, this new approach to minor offences could have a number of impacts. There is already a lack of trust on the part of young people, stemming from ASBOs and the criminalisation of anti-social behaviours such as rowdiness, public disruption, and excessive noisiness, as well as the use of stop-and-search legislation - designed to combat terrorist activities - on young people.
Now, with the introduction of Speedy Justice, there is a question of whether that trust will be eroded even further.
What are your thoughts on Speedy Justice? On the review of the Youth Justice System?