Yesterday we learned that the person arrested on foot of the latest assault on tourists – this time English amateur footballers – in Dublin is a teenager. The arrest of a teenager for a serious crime would in many cases be considered notable, but in Ireland it is now par for the course: The previous outrage, just some weekends previously, involved the arrest of a 14 and a 16 year old for the brutal assault of American tourist Stephen Termini, which left him with life-changing injuries.
In May, two teenagers were arrested after another assault, this time in Navan, which was also described as “brutal”.
Last October, three teenagers ranging in age from 14 to 15 were arrested after ramming a Garda car with a stolen vehicle in Cherry Orchard.
In January, a teenager was arrested in Dublin after being found in possession of €169,000 worth of illegal drugs. In May, four teenagers were arrested as part of an investigation into a car-stealing ring “in the east of the country”. In February 2022, two teenagers carried out the assault on a young girl in Dublin that cost her the sight of one eye. And then there was the case of Ana Kriegel, or the case of the four teenagers arrested for the gang rape of a young girl.
There’s a pattern here, in other words.
It’s tempting, when there’s a pattern, to attempt some grand unifying explanation of that pattern. Most of these teenagers, you might point out, are young boys rather than young girls. In most cases they appear to come from what we euphemistically call “socially deprived” backgrounds. And in almost all of the cases, the crimes being investigated involve animalistic violence.
I suspect that despite all those factors, any “grand unifying theory” might be off the mark. My friend David Quinn would probably point out the growth in broken homes and the growing number of young men in particular without a positive male influence in their life. Figures on the left would likely point to “underinvestment in communities”. For myself, my instinct would be to look at the influence of pornography, and the glorification of violence and sadism in video games and in the darker part of the internet.
But more than any of those things, what strikes me is the loss of fear of the authorities: Generations of children are learning in schools about their rights, but not a great deal, I suspect, about their responsibilities. The criminal code in this country means that in many cases, once you turn 18, your criminal slate is wiped clean. The Gardai are unarmed, and in many if not most cases falling foul of the cops as a teenager will get you a slap on the wrist and no criminal record. Giving some delinquent a good, non-lethal beating in Garda custody is, of course, now entirely off the table. In other words, one of the big problems (I’d argue) is that being a young criminal in Ireland comes with an extraordinarily high degree of relative impunity.
A society that treats juvenile crime relatively lightly is probably, on balance, a civilised one: It speaks well of us as a country that our instincts are generally to give young people a second chance, on the grounds that young people are disproportionately stupid and foolish. Over the years, people have suggested various ways of balancing that instinctive leniency out – for example by making parents criminally liable for the acts of their underage offspring. This is, after all, the rule already applied to dog owners: If your dog bites somebody, you are responsible. It doesn’t strike me as either just or attractive, though, to penalise parents who in many cases have already clearly failed, or are not in a position to succeed.
Instead, I’d argue for the use of technology: Teenagers convicted of low-level crimes as juveniles should be subject to electronic monitoring of their location, as prisoners released on license were up until 2021, when that program was dropped.
Add that to a two strikes policy: A crime committed while under an electronic monitoring policy means mandatory juvenile detention at the pleasure of the courts.
But whether you agree with my hardline instincts or not, there also needs to be wider societal conversation about why so many of these crimes are being committed by the very young, and what policy errors the state has made to bring this pattern about. For my money, it’s a little bit of everything: The rise in broken homes. The increase in exposure to extremely pornographic and violent material at a young age. The overall shift in societal attitudes towards authority. The impact of years of organised crime and the glorification in some parts of the media of gangster culture. And, of course, the state’s generally lackadaisical attitude to crime and punishment.
Because it is highly unlikely to be a pure coincidence that so many of these crimes are being committed by the youngest amongst us. Which suggests that the rest of society is giving them a very poor example.