On 13 February 2017, Dr Sean Redmond, Adjunct Professor of Youth Justice at the School of Law, University of Limerick, launched the Lifting the lid on Greentown report.1,2 The report outlined a study that examined the effect of a criminal network on the offending behaviour of children between 2010 and 2011 in a regional Garda sub-district outside Dublin referred to as Greentown.
Research into youth crime has been extensive and tends to focus on descriptive analysis of general populations and large offending subpopulations.1 A tool that has been shown to increase understanding of this area is network analysis.1 Although the literature examining associations between criminal networks and children has been slowly emerging internationally, scant attention has been given to examining this area in Ireland.
The main research questions addressed in this study were:
- How and why did children become involved with the criminal network initially and what factors shaped and maintained this involvement?
- How did the criminal network support the offending behaviour?
- How easy or difficult was it for children involved in the criminal network to make and follow through on their own decisions, including quitting the network?
The study involved a case study design and consisted of the following sequential steps:
- Burglary and drugs for sale and supply data collated on An Garda Síochána’s PULSE (police using leading systems effectively) system were analysed and ranked.
- Based on the previous analysis, geographical location and other criteria, such as containment of criminal activity to the sub-district, number of young offenders, willingness of An Garda Síochána to take part in the study, and availability of facilities to undertake the fieldwork, Greentown was chosen as the most appropriate location for the study.
- A criminal network map was developed by Garda analysts using PULSE data and illustrated how offenders aged 11‒36 years, who carried out burglary or drugs for sale and supply offences between 2010 and 2011 in Greentown, linked together via common offences.
- In order to ensure anonymity of individuals on the criminal network map, a blinding process, coined by the author as the Twinsight method, was utilised. Two versions of the map were developed: a ‘live’ version that contained personal details of the offenders involved. This was only seen by Garda members or analysts. The second version, a ‘researcher’ version, was similar to the first version, except that there was no identifying or personal information and was used only by the researcher. The maps shared unique identifier codes, which allowed Garda respondents (n=16) taking part in semi-structured interviews to ‘ground’ (p. 24) their views by linking real events to the individuals on the map via the unique identifier.
- The coding and data analysis of transcriptions were collated on NVivo and informed by grounded theory.
Four key findings emerged from the analysis. First, the analysis indicated the presence of a criminal hierarchical network that differentiated between family and non-family members in Greentown. For example, at the top of the hierarchy was the network leader (A2), his second-in-command was (Z1), while middle management consisted of associates (D1, E1 and A1). Younger family members of A2 (B2 and D2) also appeared in the network.
Second, the hierarchical structure evident was supported by processes and sympathetic-embedded cultures. The study showed that A2 and his family had an imposing effect over associates, clients and non-aligned residents. In addition, there was a mismatch between how the criminal justice system operates and the lived reality. For example, to get A2 convicted, a complaint by someone willing to follow it through to court was necessary but the lived reality was that A2 managed to distance himself from criminal activities, while very few would complain or act as a witness against him.
Third, the power and effect of the network was shown to be strongest on the estate where A2 lived. A2’s influence was thought to decline with distance; however, in associates and clients, particularly those living on the same estate, the influence remained the same. Moreover, regardless of distance, having any relationship with A2, whether by choice or circumstance, resulted in independence and privacy being taken away.
Finally, for five or more offences, child offending in Greentown (75%) was shown to be five times higher than the national average for burglary (15%). A possible explanation for this outcome is that a ‘network effect’ (p. 50) was present, persuading children to offend. The evidence in the Greentown study suggests that network factors differ between associates and family members. For associates, factors included how children were selected and recruited; strong pull and push dynamics; living in compliant surroundings; making deals to retain them; limiting their options and creating indecision to deter those that want to get out. However, factors for family members include ‘history, expectation, family brand, legitimacy to control, emergence, succession’ which suggest ‘a preordained role’(p. 51). Garda respondents in this study believe that network factors are pervasive in both children that reside near A2 and those whose family members are clients of A2.
The author identified a number of limitations to the study:
- The criminal network map relied on specific parameters, namely data for burglary and drugs for sale and supply offences (PULSE), which may have resulted in individuals clustering together on the map.
- Gardaí were asked to link their experiences to their interpretation of the network map, which was then interpreted by the researcher.
- ‘Time’ (2010‒2011) and the ‘offence type’ parameters (burglary and drugs for sale and supply) decided who or who did not appear on the network map.
- There were also limitations and weaknesses present in the PULSE data upon which the criminal network is based.3,4
The aim of this study was to explore whether criminal networks influenced children moving into a life of crime. As acknowledged by the author, it was problematic trying to determine cause and effect; at best this study provides sufficient evidence that ‘plausibly’ suggests that criminal networks may influence offending in children.
However, the study increases the understanding of factors that influence offending in children under the age of 18 in an Irish context. It involved a multiagency response, which included the Department of Justice, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, An Garda Síochána (members and analyst) and the University of Limerick. Policy and practical implications are also discussed in the report.
With the aim of extending this research further and helping vulnerable youths and children that are influenced into a life of crime in Ireland, a replication study is currently underway. The aim of this new study is to determine whether the results of the Greentown study can be generalised across Ireland. Although it will involve similar methodology, there will be slight differences, such as:
- Two additional sites instead of one
- Criminal network maps based on more recent PULSE data (2014‒2015)
- Semi-structured interviews of frontline Gardaí on both sites (n=20)
Additionally, in order to broaden the data collection, juvenile liaison officers throughout Ireland will be invited to participate in the survey.
1 Department of Children and Youth Affairs (2016) Lifting the lid on Greentown: why we should be concerned about the influence criminal networks have on children’s offending behaviour In Ireland. Dublin: Government Publications. http://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/26850/
2 Department of Children and Youth Affairs (2016) Lifting the lid on Greentown: key findings. Dublin: Government Publications. http://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/26850/
3 Central Statistics Office (2015) Review of the quality of crime statistics. Dublin: Government of Ireland. http://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/24887/
4 Central Statistics Office (2016) Review of the quality of crime statistics 2016. Cork: Central Statistics Office. http://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/26176/