How applied research could improve Ireland’s youth justice system

30 Aug 2022

Image: Dr Sean Redmond

Dr Sean Redmond is focused on taking research outside the university to help develop evidence-informed policy, programmes and practice.

Dr Sean Redmond completed his doctorate in governance in 2014, examining the role of crime networks in worsening children’s offending behaviour. He now specialises in applied research related to youth crime.

Redmond is a professionally qualified social worker and a civil servant in the Department of Justice. He is also director of the Research Evidence into Policy, Programmes and Practice (REPPP) programme and adjunct professor in youth justice at the University of Limerick.

REPPP is focused on evidence-informed policy research and works with the Government as a scientific partner. Its research deals with real-world problems, largely related to youth crime issues. But the team also looked at how tech could be used to reduce the isolation of older people in rural areas during the pandemic.

I try to talk about using science to load the dice toward favourable results – in our case, reduced crime’

Tell us about the research you’re currently working on.

My research focus is applied research to improve effectiveness and efficiency in the youth justice system. Projects include The Greentown Project, reducing the influence of crime networks on children in disadvantaged communities, which has been replicated four times and has attracted a €4.2m investment in a new evidence-informed programme designed and currently being tested in two locations by the REPPP team.

The Relationship Project is a detailed examination of what the most effective ‘change’ relationships look like. This is of particular importance in the youth justice system where front-line professionals attempt to engage young people (in a nutshell) to do less bad stuff and more good stuff. While there may be magic in the most transformative relationships, science also has a critically important part to play in terms of how professionals working with young people use their time.

REPPP’s Executive Leadership Programme takes our research outside the university to work directly with coalitions of front-line professionals dealing with the most complex, often called ‘wicked problems’. Examples of problems that we’ve tried to help develop solutions for include how we stop open drug dealing in a city centre park and how to reduce the loneliness and isolation experienced by older people in rural areas during the pandemic using IT solutions.

These research projects are examples of the practical applications of REPPP research to dealing with real-world complex problems mainly, but not exclusively, related to youth crime issues.

Our team of research fellows, postdoctorate researchers and PhD students is drawn from both academia and professional youth work practice. Our work programme is commissioned directly by the Department of Justice, which sees REPPP as a key part of its reform efforts to develop evidence-informed policy, programmes and practice.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

All of our research is practically focused in a small, discrete but publicly high-profile area of policy – youth crime. I have developed a work programme with the Department of Justice that assists in the implementation of its youth justice strategy. REPPP is the scientific partner.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

I have been a social work practitioner, manager and a civil servant for 30 years. I have always had an interest in research, particularly practically focused research.

My interest in completing a doctorate came from a chance conversation with a youth worker. The youth worker told me about a boy who she was working with who had run away from home because he owed money to a local drugs gang. The boy’s mother had contacted him to come back and take his beating because the drugs gang were making their life a misery, assuming that everything could be OK after the beating, equilibrium restored.

I wanted to tell this boy’s story and, as we now know, the stories of approximately 1,000 other children caught in the same circumstances.

What are some of the biggest challenges or misconceptions you face as a researcher in your field?

I think the main challenge is listening to what policymakers need rather than transmitting our own ideas and then trying to sell them.

Do you think public engagement with science has changed in recent years?

I think that (generally) people are more science savvy – but I don’t think that this necessarily means they have more confidence in science, particularly in dealing with very complex situations.

I try to talk about using science to load the dice toward favourable results (in our case, reduced crime) rather than guarantees, because of the many external factors. I think that this honesty, but cautious optimism, is seen as reasonable.

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