Article: A critical analysis of informal youth diversion policy in the Republic of Ireland

Author: Katharina Swirak | Tags: , , , , ,

The Irish Youth Justice Service is at a juncture where current policy is being reviewed. This article critiques aspects of current policy and uses research to explore how potential changes to policy might shift approaches in practice from prescribed purposes and outcomes to a more transformative approach.

Over the past two decades, diversionary and community based measures for youth crime prevention have gained central importance in youth justice policies across many national contexts. Despite the seemingly progressive ideals underpinning diversion and prevention as a political and pragmatic strategy to deal with young people in trouble with the law, it is important to maintain a critical distance to its various and ongoing permutations. In particular, the contemporary prioritising of designing and delivering ‘value for money’ interventions and investing in programmes that are ‘evidence-based’ and ‘outcomes’-focused, deflects all too easily from engrained, complex and underlying causalities of youth crime. Growing up in neoliberal societies which demand continuous self-improvement, flexibility and navigation of various insecurities, contributes to the deep exclusion of many young people, sometimes with violent consequences.

I offer some critical reflections on currently envisaged policy changes in relation to the Irish Republic’s multi-agency diversion projects, the so called Garda Youth Diversion Projects (GYDPs). Although different in various aspects, GYDPs closely resemble Youth Offending Teams (YOTs) in England and Wales. It is my hope that my analysis is useful beyond the Irish context, as it points to some of the perennial questions and fundamentally ideological decisions to be made when dealing with young people (potentially) in trouble with the law.

My reflections are partly based on my PhD research which I completed in 2013 (Swirak, 2013). As part of my research, I conducted a detailed genealogical policy analysis of GYDPs and also interviewed over 30 professionals working on 14 different GYDPs across the Republic of Ireland, about their engagement with different elements of GYDP policy. In addition, I remain a close observer of GYDP policy and practice through ongoing conversations with youth workers/youth justice workers, youth work teachers and relevant policy makers.

Background and Context

GYDPs are officially defined as ‘…community based, multi-agency youth crime prevention initiatives which primarily seek to divert young people who have been involved in anti-social and/or criminal behaviour by providing suitable activities to facilitate personal development, promote civic responsibility and improve long-term employability prospects’ (IYJS, 2009b:2). They have grown from just two projects in North Dublin in 1991 to 106 projects in 2018, with a total annual budget spend of approximately 12 million Euro (Fitzgerald, 2017). Over 4,000 thousand young people participate on an annual basis in the projects (IYJS, 2016). In contemporary youth justice policy, which in the context of the Republic of Ireland exists in a comprehensive manner only since the establishment of the IYJS in 2005, the GYDPs now constitute an important element of a tiered approach to youth justice. This means that the level of intervention is thought to be linked to the level of risk and need of young people.

In terms of institutional legacy, GYDPs have evolved out of previously ongoing informal and local partnerships between youth work organisations and the Gardai in particular areas. As the number of GYDPs increased over the decades, voluntary youth work organisations have remained the main provider of GYDPs. At the local level, GYDPs have in most instances become embedded in youth work

organisations’ wider network of service provision. In addition, several projects have become part of the wider local social policy fabric and have often been set up based on demands made by local politicians, rather than for example on the basis of local youth crime rates. The projects thus sit at the intersection of different ‘service’ systems for young people in Ireland, which at times contributes to apparent contradictions for policy makers and professionals working on them.

Previous research has identified that as a result of this institutional legacy, some GYDPs operate as ‘generic’ youth work projects, potentially resulting in ‘net-widening’, i.e. unnecessarily drawing young people into the criminal justice sphere. More worryingly, others seem to be operating as direct ‘extension of social control’ (Bowden, 2006), without formal procedural safeguards for young people participating in them (Swirak, 2013). For example, some youth justice workers routinely write reports for the Children’s Court. In some cases, judges have made participation in GYDPs mandatory elements of sentences, while in other instances, youth justice workers reportedly expel young people, possibly without due process, from participation in GYDPs. All of these practices have unclear implications for young people’s rights and ultimately also their continued engagement with the criminal justice system.

The first comprehensive reform process of GYDPs since their inception, the ‘Agenda of Change’, was initiated by the IYJS in 2009. It was concerned mainly with repositioning GYDPs towards acting as an additional layer of intervention for young people involved with the statutory Garda Diversion Programme (GDP). To achieve this, the IYJS engaged in a lengthy process of research with all local projects and introduced as one of the most important innovations, unifying reporting and planning practices. These included the introduction of the requirement of GYDPs’ work plans and activities to be aligned with local youth crime statistics, the development of local crime profiles for project planning and linking to project outcomes, the training of GYDP staff in programmes aimed at remodelling young people and their parents’ behaviour and last but not least the roll-out of the YLS-CMI 2.0 risk assessment tool for selection and monitoring of project participant across GYDPs (IYJS, 2009). This last element has only recently been completed (IYJS, 2016). I have argued elsewhere, that these reforms represent a radical shift in both the governance of young people and the youth work profession, and have been productive of advanced liberal youth justice work. Although interpreted differently by GYDP professionals depending on a variety of parameters, advanced liberal youth justice work is best characterised by a focus on managerialism, a privileging of evidence best- practice underpinned by the risk-factor paradigm as well as largely decontextualized and individualised conceptions of young people’s offending behaviours (Swirak, 2016). I now turn to two issues currently under discussion in relation to GYDP policy, namely the rebalancing of primary and secondary target groups of young people as well as measurement of performance and outcomes.

GYDPs and targeting ‘high-risk’ young people

Since the GYDPs’ inception, the concepts of primary prevention of young people generally ‘at risk’ of offending behaviour and diversion of young people from the criminal justice system already in trouble with the law, have been conflated in official project definitions and practice. GYDP policy first officially differentiated between these two target groups in a 1998 Garda Circular, defining the primary target group as those young people who had already offended and were considered likely to reoffend, and the secondary target group as those young people who hadn’t yet offended, but ‘because of their lifestyle and vulnerability are considered to be ‘at risk’ (Garda Circular, 1998: 3, cited in Bowden and Higgins, 2000: 151). To address this relatively vague definition and refocus GYDPs more tightly towards diversion, GYDP Operational Guidelines of 2009 prescribed individual projects to aim for a 70/30 participation ratio of young people from primary and secondary target groups respectively. Despite the introduction of this ratio, current figures modulate around 60/40. As a consequence, the IYJS is currently considering a revision of these arrangements and directing local GYDPs to consider a further tightened ratio of 75/25 of primary/secondary referrals. In addition and corresponding with the recently finalised rolling out of the YLS/CMI risk assessment tool across projects, the most recent thinking amongst policy makers is that young people assessed with higher risks/needs across both target groups should be prioritised for referrals to GYDPs. Policy makers’ concerns here relate to the allocation of scarce Department of Justice resources, which according to the ‘tiered’ model of youth justice delivery, should be invested in those young people with the highest risks/needs. Given the widely accepted evidence of ‘negative systems contact’, the rationale of prioritising particular groups of young people for GYDP participation seems difficult to refute. Nevertheless, it is important to keep several caveats in mind.

Firstly, in my research with professionals employed on GYDPs, it became obvious that they did not always consider the practice of ‘targeting’ young people with higher risks/needs as feasible or as the best possible outcome for young people in trouble with the law. They expressed concern about the labelling of GYDPs as projects’ for ‘troublesome’ young people and as a consequence losing their traction for exactly those young people, who might benefit the most from participation in GYDPs. They also suggested that GYDPs should ideally create safe spaces that mirror ‘organic’ and ‘pro-social’ communities, which requires a diverse mix of young people participating. In the absence of any research on how young people on GYDPs experience this ‘interaction’ of primary and secondary referrals in terms of considering their behavioural change, it would be unwise and not ‘evidence-based’ to introduce a prescriptive ratio, possibly even rewritten into a condition of funding receipt. Professional and local discretion should remain of utmost importance to strike the balance between distributing resources wisely, while also ensuring that GYDPs can continue to function as ‘safe spaces’ for young people who have previously fallen through cracks of many systems that didn’t support them appropriately.

Secondly, in the context of wider provision of services for young people it is important to consider the issue of ‘targeting’ more systemically. In his remarks on ‘net-widening’ as one of the mechanisms of an expansion of ‘social control’ in contemporary societies, Cohen (1985) aptly reminds us of the corollary ‘positive’ unintended consequences. Potentially, interventions funded by the criminal justice system can therefore lead to the ‘…deploying of more resources along those margins, create more opportunities, and provide more services to groups who need them most’ (Cohen, 1985:257). Coupled with the intensification of a ‘value-for-money’ culture across the Irish public sector (Government of Ireland, 2008) this is exactly what has happened with GYDPs in the Republic of Ireland. Particularly since the collapse of the Celtic Tiger in 2008, generic children and youth services have been heavily cut vis-à-vis ‘targeted’ services for children and young people (Kiely and Meade, 2018). In some localities, parents of young people have been reported to comment on the perceived impact of these priorities: ‘does my kid first have to break a window before she can participate in a youth project’? If we take a step back and think more systemically, a further ‘narrowing’ of the target group for GYDPs has to be complemented by a reliable mechanism ensuring that those young people who were referred to GYDP as ‘secondary target group’ are supported in other types of youth provision. Otherwise, we risk merely, shifting the existing risks and needs of young people of the secondary target group, without addressing them adequately. Consideration should also be given to the transition of young people from GYDPs to other types of service provision, once their offending behaviour has been addressed. The strength of youth work organisations’ local networks seems to be one of the most obvious choices.

Thirdly, it has been acknowledged by Irish policy makers, that the envisaged shift in targeting priorities could essentially alter the nature of some GYDPs, which operate on the basis of a more universal ethos, working with more ‘secondary’ referrals and young people at the lower end of the ‘risk/need’ scale. The related and implicit expectation of GYDPs would then be to affect positive changes with young people who often need more intensive supports, due to adverse life experiences and complex needs. In my research, professionals across GYDPs confirmed how ‘success’ with ‘high-risk’ young people would be volatile and often hard to document and achieve. As a consequence, professionals employed on GYDPs act as ‘case managers’ and advocates for young people, supporting their access to a range of specialised services that other statutory services have failed to provide. Without the provision of appropriate supports, this ‘offloading’ puts undue pressures on GYDP professionals, possibly setting them up for failure. Further narrowing of targeting priorities for GYDPs could therefore easily lead to undue ‘responsibilisation’ (see e.g. Pratt 1989 or Garland, 2001) of staff employed on GYDPs. Expectations of GYDPs and professionals employed on them should therefore be clearly reviewed in line with the levels of support that they receive from funders and their line managers.

Measuring projects’ contributions and outcomes

A second significant area of currently debated policy reforms relates to the assessment of GYDPs’ contributions and outcomes. GYDP policy makers are well aware of the nuances of ‘success’ when working with young people, the complexity of ‘pathways’ in and out of offending behaviour, as well as particular local contexts of GYDPs (for example the difference between urban and rural projects). As a result,

the interest to record GYDPs’ contributions appear relatively sensible, particularly in relation to creating ‘pro-social’ opportunities for young people and supporting their resilience. However, I want to pinpoint several unresolved tensions when considering the measurement of GYDPs’ contributions and outcomes.

My research with professionals has shown that in many instances, the YLS risk assessment tool is used face-to-face with young people. This is highly problematic. It is uncertain how the delivery of this clinical and risk rather than strengths focused tool impacts on the important aspect of relationship building between the young person and the youth justice worker. In addition, its delivery in the context of a voluntary intervention, raises a plethora of challenges related to procedural justice and young people’s rights, particularly in the absence of clarity with what happens with the assessment results in reports for the Court. For GYDP policy, it would be of utmost importance to explicitly differentiate between the YLS risk assessment tool as an information gathering tool used in GYDPs’ back offices or as a face-to-face tool used directly with young people.

Unsurprisingly, my research has also identified that the single biggest perceived impact of the 2009 ‘Agenda of Change’ was added and changed reporting criteria. Professionals routinely observed that they are able to spend significantly less time with face-to-face work with young people, given the increased time spent on fulfilling administrative requirements. It would be important to take into account that the perceived benefits of increased accountability have to be off-set against less time available to be spent directly with young people. Most importantly however, GYDP policy could seize the moment and exchange a culture of managerialism for one that prioritises young people’s voices and participation. The latter value system is already embedded in projects working according to a youth work ethos, based on the principle of young people’s voluntary participation. This means that young people generally only attend GYDPs if they feel that their interests are covered by the particular project.

However, it is notable that none of the pieces of research conducted for policy formulation or instruments introduced since 2009 by the IYJS have talked to young people participating on GYDPs. In this regard, GYDP policy as it stands contradict the goals set out in the National Strategy on Children and Young People’s Participation (DCYA, 2015) by effectively silencing young people’s voices and agency. An important shift towards a paradigm that involves young people as co-producers of knowledge rather than as ‘subjects’ who are ‘intervened upon’, should be undertaken by policy makers. There are many well tried and tested methodologies available to include young people in assessing interventions (see e.g. Case and Haines, 2014; Cooper, 2014; Stirling et al. 2018), but first and foremost it would have to mean an explicit acknowledgement of the complexities and politics of the co-production of knowledge. The processes involved mean that evaluation of outcomes conducted in partnership with young people will be slower, more time intensive and at times challenging in pointing out the lack of success of particular activities or programmes. Despite the attention to ‘local’ knowledge professed by GYDP policy makers, without the voices and inputs of young people, it will by default remain incomplete and lack in texture, depth and quality.

Finally, it is important to unpack some of the terminology used in current policy discussions, as this tends to ‘veil’ (Goldson, 2009) some unresolved contradictions. For example, it should be clarified whether GYDPs are expected to reduce local youth crime rates, as repeatedly stated in policy documents? This seems a big ask, given the well-evidenced complexity and deeply entrenched issues, difficult to address by a punctuated intervention. It would rather make more sense to move towards a model of assessing contributions that corresponds better with the IYJS’ stated commitment to support GYDPs as ‘holistic’ interventions. The remaining focus on the risk factor paradigm- despite an explicit acknowledgement of its pitfalls- shows how it has achieved the status of a ‘truth-regime’ (Rose, 1999) that fundamentally can’t be questioned. More importantly, it undermines the potentially ‘hopeful practice’ (Te Riele, 2006) and ‘revolutionary pedagogy’ (Freire, 1970) taking place across some GYDPs. The link between the latter and desistance has recently been flagged (McNeill, 2018). A move away from the risk-factor paradigm would symbolise an important shift towards accepting young people as unconditionally valuable individuals.

Policy alterations in a ‘carved-up’ policy landscape

Many of the considerations currently undertaken by GYDP policy makers are restricted by the wider approach to services for children and young people in the Republic of Ireland. Interventions are constrained by the logic of pre-determined and specified purposes and outcomes rather than the provision of ‘transformative rights’ (Gray, 2011). These ‘services’ remain singularly focused upon the prevention of future problems such as offending as opposed to prioritising the design of unconditional and safe ‘spaces’ for young people (Moss and Petrie, 2002) within which they can be supported in resolving their own issues and determine their own futures. Despite the best intentions to coordinate services, children and young people remain carved up into bureaucratic and practice domains, depending on their particular needs. Given the slim changes of this regime changing in the near future, efforts to re-envision GYDP policy are all the more important

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Last Updated: 2 July 2018


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Katharina is a lecturer in Criminology at University College Cork with interests in youth justice policy, voluntary sector involvement in the criminal justice system and prison abolitionism.