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2 April 2009 Edition

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Sinn Féin challenges community safety proposals

TRANSFER OF POWERS: The Sinn Féin Policing and Justice spokesperson believes certain policing strategies developed in Britain are inappropriate to the North of Ireland and that the transfer of policing and justice powers are essential

TRANSFER OF POWERS: The Sinn Féin Policing and Justice spokesperson believes certain policing strategies developed in Britain are inappropriate to the North of Ireland and that the transfer of policing and justice powers are essential

Empowerment not repression


BY LAURA FRIEL

SINN FÉIN Policing and Justice spokesperson Alex Maskey has reiterated that the transfer of powers over policing and criminal justice offers locally-elected political representatives the opportunity to identify and agree their own community safety priorities.
Sinn Féin is concerned that the wholesale adoption of policing strategies developed in Britain would be inappropriate to communities in Ireland.
The party has criticised British Government proposals for failing to recognise that the issue of community safety is local and should be community-led. Policing Board member Alex Maskey has pointed out that community safety strategies should be about empowerment not repression.
Responding to the NIO consultation document, Together, Safer, Stronger, the West Belfast MLA said community safety issues within the Six Counties should reflect local needs and be accountable to local democratic institutions.
 “Where anti-social behaviour is criminal behaviour, it should be dealt with as a crime. But where anti-social behaviour doesn’t reach the criminal threshold, it is best dealt with by community-based strategies and initiatives,” said Maskey.
The British Government’s approach to community safety issues has already been the focus of widespread concern. The British Government presides over a system that locks up more young people than any other European state and has the lowest age of criminal responsibility in the world.
Since the introduction of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs), the extensive, and often totally inappropriate, use of ASBOs in Britain has proven to be both ineffective and counter-productive.
“The main impetus of strategies adopted in Britain have been the increasing criminalisation of children and their parents, particularly amongst the working class and other marginalised communities,” said Maskey.
“Britain’s approach to community safety has been to introduce a range of punitive measures, particularly against young people. Many of these measures have proven to be ineffective and even counter-productive because they feed rather then challenge alienation within communities.”
While anti-social behaviour is a genuine and ongoing concern, communities, particularly those emerging from decades of oppression and injustice, are also rightly concerned about issues of repression and deprivation.
“Sinn Féin is committed to work for an all-Ireland policing and justice framework that maximises community safety while protecting civil and legal rights,” said Maskey.
“This is not a case where one size fits all. Current proposals by the NIO rely too heavily upon the British model and as such represent a missed opportunity to build on strengths already apparent within communities here.”

RESTORATIVE APPROACHES
The proposals fail to recognise the successful work carried out on a daily basis by the Safer Neighbourhood Project and Community Restorative Justice Ireland. Restorative approaches encourage the emphasis on the needs of the victim, the community and offender to mend the harm caused rather than simply seeking punishment.
“These initiatives provide structures and practices already embedded within many communities,” Maskey said. “And unlike the top-heavy British model, they are community led.”
A community-led approach is about empowerment. It’s about increasing the confidence, ability and resources that enable communities to challenge and prevent anti-social behaviour and in doing so provide an alternative vision of neighbourliness, citizenship and community.
“There needs to be a holistic approach to community safety which incorporates preventive as well as punitive measures. This requires social investment, community planning, family support, juvenile diversion and improved community facilities,” said Maskey.
“This makes particular sense within communities enduring high levels of social deprivation and disadvantage, factors already acknowledged as impacting on community safety issues.
“Proposals to stop young people from gathering at inappropriate locations or locations where anti-social behaviour is a regular occurrence must be underpinned by the provision of alternative, safe and appropriate facilities, such as youth and sports clubs.”

UNREGULATED POWERS
Sinn Féin is also concerned about proposals to give the PSNI greater unregulated powers of discretion, the further criminalisation of children to include those under 10 years of age, the ill-defined notion of anti-social behaviour and potential discrimination against poorer families.
“The combination of greater powers of discretion and an ill-defined notion of what actually constitutes anti-social behaviour leaves the implementation of these measures open to abuse,” said Maskey.
This combination could provide an inner dynamic towards greater criminalisation in which individual PSNI officers are left to decide, on an ad hoc basis, what constitutes unacceptable behaviour and when particular measures are appropriate and proportionate,” said Maskey.

GREATER CRIMINALISATION
Sinn Féin sees another dynamic towards greater criminalisation within a proposal that would allow PSNI officers to remove any child under 16 found on the streets between 9pm to 6am to “a place of safety”, including taking them home.
In the proposal, any refusal by the child to co-operate with the PSNI would become a criminal offence. This would extend the age of criminal responsibility below the age of 10, in effect abandoning the already limited protection afford to very young children from criminalisation.
Protection afforded by the age of criminal responsibility is further undermined within the provision of a Parental Compensation Order. Within this proposal it is suggested that the standard of proof for a child under 10 would be based on “committing an act that would have been criminal if he or she were 10”. Alex Maskey said:
“Sinn Féin is gravely concerned that Parental Compensation Orders may have the effect of criminalising children under the age of 10 through the back door.”
The party also rejects a proposal to allow the PSNI to use under-age teenagers to ‘test’ purchase alcohol as a means of exposing premises selling alcohol to minors. Apart from being a form of entrapment, the use of children to secure convictions would breach the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child. Alex Maskey said:
“The consumption of alcohol in public places, which often involves under-age drinkers, is a major problem that needs to be tackled but the use of ‘test purchasing’ is not the answer. Alternatives should be considered. For example, in the USA, alcohol is bar-coded to enable the police to trace the point of purchase.”
“Sinn Féin has signalled a caution around a proposal to redefine community engagement within the terms and under the control and direction of the PSNI.
Partners and Community Together, known as PACT, recognises the importance of a multi-agency approach to community safety issues but may ignore and undermine existing community safety forums.
“We are concerned that a parallel initiative such as PACT, that would be police-led rather than community-led, could undermine the good work by existing structures and would subsume the priorities of communities beneath those identified by the PSNI,” said Maskey.
“Community safety is not about locking up children, criminalising parents or disempowering the local community. It’s about enhancing local initiatives, empowering neighbourhoods, supporting community groups, securing social provision and providing alternatives as well as developing an appropriate legal and policing framework with which to apply necessary sanctions. Hopefully, the consultation process will help address many of these issues.”

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