GANGLAND figures found to be coercing children into criminal activities will now be liable prosecution under a new law that could land them in prison for up to five years.
The new legislation, named The Exploitation of Children in the Commission of Offences Bill, has been introduced on the back of a growing body of research detailing the exploitation of minors by hardened elements of the criminal underworld.
Adult criminals often recruit children to act as lookouts, weapons smugglers, drug dealers, and ultimately, as a safe proxy through which to perpetrate their crimes.
Gang members often use children from their own immediate network of friends and family to recruit others, which enables them to broaden their web of exploitation to other areas.
While laws against the exploitation of children for criminal purposes already exist, the new measures outlined today by Minister for Justice, Helen McEntee, have expanded the tools available to public prosecutors.
She said to Newstalk’s Pat Kenny: "We have a law act from back in 1997, which sets out it's an offence for an adult… to procure, groom, coerce or force a child to commit an offence.
"They are treated as the principal offender, so you can press charges against the adult for the crime that has been committed by the young person.
"It doesn't take into account the damage that is done to the child - these are children as young as eight or nine, and they're vulnerable.
"What we're introducing here is a separate offence where you can prosecute an adult for coercing, grooming or exploiting essentially a child - whether a crime is committed or not."
Adults can also now be prosecuted for crimes committed by children under their coercion.
Despite the Justice Minister's hope that this change sends a "very clear message to criminals", some experts have expressed scepticism about the law's enforceability. Coercion can be difficult to prove, especially when the children involved do not cooperate.
Minister McEntee was also reluctant to overstate the bill's significance, as she acknowledged the variety of factors that contribute to this sort of crime.
"What these criminal networks provide is anti-social community structure, so we need to look at pro-community structures to steer young people away from these networks and help them resist that," she said.
She also highlighted The Greentown Project - a youth justice strategy that will be launched in the coming weeks as an example of the broader community measures that are necessary to combat the issue.