Taking the wrong road

Many decades ago, a then seven year-old daughter, told me about another child, a contemporary, who had done something which daughter considered “very unfair.” And then, as if by explanation, she added: “She doesn’t go to our school.”

Many decades ago, a then seven year-old daughter, told me about another child, a contemporary, who had done something which daughter considered “very unfair.” And then, as if by explanation, she added: “She doesn’t go to our school.”

“Our school” was an ordinary national school with a few hundred pupils, but in unconsciously using it as a metaphor, seven year-old was doing, what all of us do, she was defining her comfort-zone and her tribe.

Tribal blood is thicker than water, and though most of us would agree that there, but for the grace of God, go I, we would find ourselves dismissing the convicted criminals daily pictured on our television news, as not being one of us, a member of our tribe, who didn’t go to our school. But drugs and alcohol have completely changed the character of crime in Ireland and neither the school nor the status of the tribe can be guaranteed to now give immunity.

There is, however, still a coterie of criminal activity, which appears to be growing, and that is the young adult, the recidivist offender, who spends most of his life in and out of our court system, and in and out of our jails. When he appears on the television news, his head is either covered by a hoodie or he is brazenly defiant. The accompanying script gives us the details of the sentence imposed on him, and of his past record. He has, over his lifetime, been convicted of 10, 20, and in one recent case, over 80, previous offences.

These 10, 20, 80 offences have all had to be worked-at, plotted, implemented, and have usually started at a very young age, as a troubled child, who has come to “the notice of the authorities.” John Lonergan, the Bansha man, former Governor of Mountjoy, has frequently said that he could identify, at birth, the babies who would ultimately, as adults, occupy his prison.

The troubled child, often out of parental control, can be a source of much unhappiness and unease in his neighbourhood, by his involvement in acts of vandalism, petty theft, disturbances, all out of proportion to his age and size. when his behaviour evolves into petty crime (though it cannot be so described because of his age) he is likely to come under the attention of the Junior Liaison Service: a service supervised by a dedicated garda who will work with the parents, a social worker and the school, in a programme of diversion. The objective is to re-orientate the child into positive healthy activity; to arrest his choice of a journey down the wrong road.

If this service ultimately fails, and the child progresses into teenage and petty crime, the Juvenile Court is the first step in the implementation of the law. This court is held in private and is not reported, but a casual glance at the clientele in the waiting area of any such court is interesting. The young adults stand, sullen, resentful, uncommunicative, sharing with each other a certain tribal affinity, but alienated from the ordinary world of work and normal social activity.

They, collectively, look an unlovable lot. But their mothers love them, and invariably will be there to support them in their passage through the court system. The presence of a father is less likely, and the presence of both parents, unusual.

The outcome of this court, while it can be detention, is often the placement of the young person under the supervision of the probation services. Even at this stage, depending on the seriousness of the offences, the objective of the legal system is still one of re-orientation.

Both the Liaison and Probationary Services are responsible for an extraordinary amount of good work in the re-direction and supervision of many young people in trouble with the law and in bringing some order into their lives. It is difficult work, sensitively but practically carried out. It is not possible to put a statistic on its success-rate since it is a variable, subject to ups and downs, lapses and recoveries. But many young lives have been guided on to a more healthy road-map.

It is, however, possible to put a statistic on to the accumulated crimes of young people who go on to become adult offenders. These are obvious in the 10, 20, 80 figures which accompany individual media reports. At this stage, it would seem that recidivism has become a chosen lifestyle, leaving in its trail malfunction, self-destruction, often early death and always heartbreak.

And yet, recidivism has to be cultivated, worked-at. Though many experts would say that the characteristic of the perpetual offender is the urge for immediate gratification, there has to be some thought and organisation, even if that ignores the connection between the cause and effect, action and consequences. It begs the question: why do something which inevitably brings years in prison? Why continually do something that you never become efficient at?

The efficient criminals, of course, never experience the rigours of prison nor the shame of being found out. They often belong to a superior tribe and have gone to the best schools. They manipulate money and power and plunge economies into recession and ordinary people into unemployment and poverty. They appear to be impervious to any structures of the law.

But our courts are very efficient at processing the so-called ordinary decent criminal, as they make their predictable journeys through the system. And while John Lonergan from his humanity and vast experience, could tell us about the backgrounds and the tribal cultures which brings them ultimately to prison, the rest of us breathe a sigh of relief as we see their handcuffed, face-covered departures.

“Good riddance,” we say, as the television picture fades into yet another news item.