Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom. While UK legislation still applies, the Youth Diversion Scheme (YDS) guides youth justice in Northern Ireland. Enacted in 2003, the YDS gives police discretion when handling youth delinquents. Police can issue informal warnings, restorative cautions (a record is kept for two and a half years and may be used in court if the child offends again), or recommend prosecution (if the offense is serious or a child has at least two prior warnings) (Youth Justice Agency b). Typically, police refer 10 percent of youths for prosecution, formally caution 10 to 15 percent of youths, and informally warn or take no action against the remaining 75 to 80 percent (O’Mahony and Campbell 2006).
Evaluations of the Youth Diversion Scheme indicate some success. Mathewson, Willis and Boyle found that 20 percent of youths who are informally warned reoffended within three years while Wilson, Kerr and Boyle found that 75 percent of youths convicted in a juvenile court were reconvicted within three years (O’Mahony and Campbell 2006). Informal warnings are associated with a higher likelihood of rehabilitation when compared with court-ordered sentences.
The YDS restricts custody to youths who have committed serious, violent or sexual offenses. In the 1980s and 90s, the average daily population in Northern Ireland’s four training schools was approximately 200 youths. Since the Youth Diversion Scheme, the average daily population of youths in training schools has dropped to approximately 35 (O’Mahony and Campbell 2006).
Anti-Social Behavior Orders (ASBO) threaten the success of the Youth Diversion Scheme. ASBOs are civil proceedings that enable the government to detain youths who may be dangerous to society. If youths are found guilty in an ASBO proceeding, they can be civilly confined for up to five years. Because ASBOs are civil, the standard of proof necessary for conviction is lower than for criminal proceedings. The entire United Kingdom currently uses ASBOs to target repeat offenders (Allen 2002).
Northern Ireland passed the Justice Act 2002 to protect the public and prevent youth offending. The Act established a variety of alternatives to youth custody including reparation orders, community responsibility orders (moral education courses), and custody care orders (split custody and community supervision sentence). The Act also integrated restorative justice principles into a sanction known as youth conferencing, which allows victims to confront their offender and express their feelings (Youth Justice Agency a). The use of youth conferencing has increased considerably since its introduction. It was not ordered at all in 2003 and in only one percent of cases in 2004, but by 2006, judges ordered youth conferencing in 23 percent of cases (Jacobson and Gibbs 2009). Youth conferencing has reduced the number of youths placed in custody. In 2004, judges sentenced 10 percent of youths (152) to custody and by 2006 judges sentenced seven percent of youths (89) to custody (Jacobson and Gibbs 2009).