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Greentown research leads the way in examining effects of crime networks

REPPP project based out of UL’s School of Law getting global attention

Groundbreaking University of Limerick research into crime networks in Ireland is attracting international interest.

This is reflected in UL’s School of Law being asked to host the international Illicit Networks Workshop, an invitation-only event that attracts the world’s top academics involved in the study of sensitive policy areas such organised crime, radicalisation and counter-terrorism.

According to School of Law Adjunct Professor in Youth Justice, Dr Sean Redmond, UL’s membership of this leading group of international thinkers is due to its groundbreaking research on crime networks in Ireland, known as the Greentown Project.

Dr Redmond leads a team within the School of Law, Research Evidence into Policy, Programmes and Practice, better known as the REPPP project, conceived by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and Department of Justice and Equality to improve the evidence base for decision making in the youth crime policy area.

The Greentown Project has provided the first scientific evidence of the effects of crime networks in Ireland.

That is according to Dr Redmond who has over 30 years’ experience of working in the areas of juvenile crime and child welfare as a social work practitioner, senior manager and at policy level, so he has direct knowledge of the harm that crime networks present.

“For a child growing up in a neighbourhood where a crime network is established the effect can be smothering and toxic, sucking you in with promises of elevated social identity and bling but soon after confining you in its grasp and limiting your horizon to routine criminal activity. This is a human rights issue for the children involved. However, until the Greentown Project began to lift the lid on these children’s plight, it was largely a hidden problem,” he adds.

The Greentown project is not unique in its mission to understand what makes crime networks tick. However, its approach to knowledge building in this area and its translation of academic effort to practical outcomes in local neighbourhoods are two distinctive features that Dr Redmond believes has attracted international interest to the Greentown project.

“The Greentown Project does something that to my knowledge other research has not been able to achieve in studying crime networks,” he says.

“Typically, research on networks either examines the anatomy of a crime network, who is most important, who holds strategic positions in terms of connectedness, which ways information and power flow; or they bring the reader into the inner-world of the network by documenting the narratives of individuals or groups.

“Using a technique developed for the Greentown Project ‘Twinsight’ we can do both; gauge the size and shape of a criminal network, while simultaneously zoom-in to better understand the specific contexts of individual network actors and their relationships. This ability to do both adds texture to any examination from a scientific perspective but also has practical benefits if you have a reasonable understanding of the character of a network but also the motivations of its players.”

The Greentown project has four distinct phases; exploratory, evidence building, design-led intervention programme development and programme trial. The origins of the project date back to 2010 when Sean was Head of Young Offender Programmes in the Department of Justice and Equality.

Similar to many jurisdictions, there was compelling evidence that most children who commit crime simply grow out of it by the time they reach late teens or young adulthood. Ireland’s approach to youth crime largely attempts to keep young people out of the formal criminal justice system.

“This light touch is entirely appropriate and there are hundreds if not thousands of taxpaying adults who have benefited from Ireland’s approach, sparing them the burden of a criminal conviction which could severely impair their prospects,” says the UL researcher.

However, anecdotally stories emerged from around the country of children’s involvement in far more serious acquisitive crime such involvement in burglaries and drug sales. This behaviour and the coercive context surrounding it was significantly different to more usual alcohol related sporadic crime more typical of teenagers.

The Greentown project commenced with the support of the Department of Justice and Equality and An Garda Siochana.

It is a provincial town outside Dublin, anonymised for the purpose of the study, where Garda data indicated high levels of burglary and drugs sale and supply offences committed by children.

The data was used to illustrate a network, but Sean explains that this did not provide insight into why children were cooffending with adults, what underpinned these relationships or how the network relationships had sustained over time. Gardai in the locality were key to providing reliable testimony.

“Particularly Garda members who knew their patch, who knew the individuals identified in the network from their routine interactions over many years,” explains Sean.

“Garda members could be key evidence sources, expert witnesses of lived social phenomena.

“The ‘Twinsight’ technique was, in some way, borne out of necessity. We had an outline of what this network looked like and how it connected, but we knew nothing about the connecting points – or nodes. I then hit on an idea, I am almost embarrassed to say, that came from the game Battleships.

“If we could give each node a unique identifier then we could track individual stories. If we could have two versions of the network, one held by the researcher which only has unique identifiers and one, held only by the Garda, that supplemented each identifier with an actual name, it meant we could have authentic conversations about real people but only referring to a reference,” he explains.

The technique proved to be key to unlocking knowledge from Garda members and non-invasive access, to the lived realities of children and families locked into network relationships.

“Greentown presented compelling evidence of a longstanding and resilient criminal network held together by a strong family and kinship inner-circle, recruiting, grooming and retaining children for criminal enterprise and subjecting the local community to coercive control,” says Dr Redmond.

The Department of Justice and Equality, Department of Children and Youth Affairs and An Garda Siochana were committed to examining if the findings were limited to Greentown. Funding was secured by the School of Law to examine the prevalence of crime network influence on children in Ireland by undertaking a national survey of specialist juvenile Garda and replicating the Greentown study in two new locations – Bluetown and Redtown, using the same techniques as before.

A key finding from the survey revealed that approximately 1,000 children across the State were considered involved or at risk of being involved in crime networks with adults.

The research has now built up a significant foundation on which to begin developing evidence informed solutions, Dr Redmond explains. Working with leading academics involved with social network analysis and organised crime, the team at the School of Law has developed a new community-based intervention programme, but the many challenges facing a child trying to escape the influence of a crime network is considerable, he says.

“Interventions which only engage the child may be blind to the subliminal coercive control that they experience in their dayto- day routines from influential figures in a criminal network,” he says. “It can be a toxic, confining social eco-system which sets the context for any intervention.”

The Greentown programme received a further €4.2m funding last year to trial a programme for three years to intervene with children caught up in crime networks in two localities, known as Whitetown and Yellowtown.

The aims are to reduce network influence on children caught up in crime networks or at risk of being caught up and to provide pro-social routes out of crime network activity for young people. Dr Redmond believes the programme is a “world leader”.

“There are a number of gang or network related programmes which take a law enforcement approach, a child welfare approach or a community development approach. I think these will be necessarily limited given the complexity and multiple dimensions of the challenges facing children,” he says.

“All we can do is design with a clear focus on the presenting adversities and make sure that the programme is robust but sufficiently agile to encounter unanticipated problems. It will be challenging but it offers an opportunity to make a meaningful impact.”
- Alan Owens