'Us and them' mentality no help in reducing crime
OPINION:ALL OF us, whether on the political left or right or in the centre, have a common interest in reducing the level of crime in society.
To develop effective policies, it would seem reasonable to discuss the causes of crime. But such discussion often produces more heat than light – perhaps for very understandable reasons.
First, many of us – probably most of us – have been victims of crime at some point, and some have been very upset or even traumatised by the experience. We may have little patience with efforts to understand what causes crime; we just want the perpetrators punished.
Second, any attempt to understand the causes of crime is frequently – and wrongly – misinterpreted as trying to excuse the perpetrators of crime. However, to suggest that a local authority should eliminate a bad bend on a road, where speeding motorists frequently cause accidents, is not to excuse the reckless behaviour of the motorists who speed round the bend. Third, the debate on crime is, to a large extent, filtered through an ideological lens.
Discussion on crime generally presupposes a distinction between the offenders and the victims of crime: “them” and “us”. However, most of us are both victims and offenders.
If I have ever broken the speed limit, I have broken the law. But we do not consider this offence, which is one that “we” might commit, to be in the same category as joyriding, for example, which is one “they” might commit, even though far more deaths and injuries on our roads are caused by speeding than by joyriding. It is also worth remembering that the greatest suffering inflicted on Irish people in recent years was caused, not by burglars in jeans, but by professionals in designer suits.
Many of those who end up in prison were also, in their earlier years, victims of serious crime. Following a visit to Mountjoy Prison some time ago, I was reflecting on the lives of the nine prisoners I had just met: six were known to me to have been victims of sexual abuse as children, and the other three I did not know well enough to be able to say. As a society, we express a great sympathy for the victims of institutional abuse, but my very conservative “guesstimate” is that at least one prisoner in four is a former resident.
The majority of people in our prisons come from a small number of disadvantaged communities, as John Lonergan, former governor of Mountjoy, repeatedly tried to remind us.
We know from various studies that a totally disproportionate percentage of people in prison have low levels of literacy, lack skills and qualifications, have left school early and never had a job. A high percentage have an addiction to drugs and/or alcohol. The incidence of mental illness among prisoners is also disproportionate; many have experienced homelessness and/or housing insecurity.
This is not to excuse their involvement in crime, as most of those who experience poverty and deprivation do not turn to crime, but it does suggest that if we are really serious about reducing crime then the social deprivation and addiction problems that underlie much criminal behaviour would be a good place to start.