We spoke with Michael Heaney, an Assistant Director at the Youth Justice Agency in Northern Ireland.
Why is Early intervention/ Youth Diversion important to Northern Ireland?
In Northern Ireland and in the Youth Justice Agency (YJA) we believe the best way to work with children involved in offending is; to work with them early, working upstream and diverting them out of the system while providing adequate support at the earliest possible stage. This is the most effective way to work, especially in reducing offending, and it also results in a range of other positive outcomes for children. It’s an efficient way of working too, as it is much more cost effective. We believe from a philosophical and ethical standpoint that we should be doing this type of work, but also understand that is the most effective and efficient way of working.
What has been the biggest challenge or learning experience?
On a strategic level, the biggest challenge had been convincing key stakeholders and partners that early prevention is not soft on crime and kids, but that there is an evidence base that proves it is an efficient and effective way of working. Despite the initial challenge, it is also proven to be a success, with language such as light touch, short-term intervention and avoiding criminal records, having now become key words across the youth justice sector and beyond. On an operational level, the biggest challenge has been helping some of our practice staff who have worked with children further up the system to adapt their thinking and practice working with children at an earlier stage.
Our biggest success as an agency is that we have been able to develop an innovative range of pre-court diversionary schemes and interventions in partnership with the police and other key partners. These schemes have allowed the police to identify children at an earlier stage in the criminal justice system and YJA to deliver short term, education based early intervention with these children and their parents. We’ve been able to rebalance our services, so more of our time and energy has been able to go into our pre-court diversionary work. Over the last number of years the whole youth justice system has been working together to reduce our first time entrants and number of children going through the court system by around 50%. We see this as a massive success story, to which YJA has made a significant contribution.
Advice you would give to a new scheme or country looking to start up a diversion scheme?
- Develop ideas from the top down and bottom up. Try new and different things - see what works and what doesn’t. Stop doing the things that don’t work and roll out the things that do.
- Learn from others. We’ve worked with the Centre for Justice Innovation, we’ve also visited Swansea in Wales, so learning from others and taking from others is important.
- Adapt ideas to your own local context and learn from others. Recognising what make sense in your own jurisdiction and region is essential.