Government should move quickly on proposal to reduce prison population

Welcome change of direction signalled by Oireachtas committee

A prison officer in the commital unit of Mountjoy Prison, where prisoners spend their first night. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

A prison officer in the commital unit of Mountjoy Prison, where prisoners spend their first night. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times


For some years the prospects for penal reform have been undermined by a sense of pessimism about the possibility of reversing a steady upward trend in prisoner numbers. This has been accompanied by a lack of imagination concerning how best to deal with crime and its consequences. These conditions have created the regrettable situation where more people are being sent to prison for longer but the public feels no safer.

Until recently the proposed solution centred on expanding capacity, epitomised by the plans — now shelved — for an excessively large prison at an inappropriate location in north county Dublin.

This expansionist approach was wrongheaded for several reasons. First, it placed an exaggerated emphasis on imprisonment as the default sanction, to the detriment of probation and community service. Second, it saddled the taxpayer with a substantial financial burden. Third, it failed to recognise the very real capacity that politicians possess to place limits on the size of the prison population.

In this context the decision by the Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality to signal that a fundamental change of direction is required is most welcome.

After due deliberation and wide consultation the committee unanimously accepted the need for a policy of decarceration. There have been calls in the past for a cap to be placed on prisoner numbers, but a declared intention to shrink the prison population is novel.

The committee has gone further than simply expressing an aspiration that the prison population be reduced. It has stated the size of the desired reduction (one third) and the timeframe over which it should be achieved (10 years). This target is ambitious but achievable. The prison population has been allowed to drift upwards and decisive action is required to halt, and then reverse, this momentum.

The committee drew inspiration from the experience of Finland, a country where a political consensus emerged that prison was overused and this was followed by the adoption of a hugely successful policy of decarceration.

The Finns have been resolute in their determination to reserve prison for the most serious offenders. When an individual is deprived of their liberty the emphasis is on keeping the sentence short, holding them in decent conditions, and making adequate arrangements for their release.

Given the differences in national culture and criminal justice arrangements it would be too much to expect that the Finnish model could simply be transplanted to Ireland and have similar effects. But its value is that it demonstrates that politicians can be effective agents of penal reform once they determine that this is in the national interest.

It is also refreshing to see Irish legislators turn to other small European countries for new ideas in matters relating to criminal justice. Far too often in the past England and the US were selected as points of reference on account of a shared language and legal tradition.

But these are not good countries to emulate when it comes to penal policy. Their prison populations have surged to unprecedented levels and remain stubbornly high. Their elected representatives have made law and order such hot political issues that the fear of being perceived as soft on crime is a major brake on progress. Attitudes towards offenders have hardened to a point where minimum standards of humane treatment are decried as unacceptably luxurious.

The situation in Ireland has deteriorated, but not this far, and the report of the committee sets out a clear marker that further deterioration cannot be countenanced. To this end it makes five recommendations that, taken together, constitute an important change of focus.

The first of these, as noted above, is that the Government should adopt a strategy of decarceration. The second is that community service should be substituted for prison sentences of under six months that have been imposed for non-violent offences. Short sentences are hugely disruptive for the individuals concerned and do not allow sufficient time for meaningful sentence planning. It would make sense to punish such individuals in the community where they could make reparation for the harms they caused, continue to play a role in the lives of their families, and be connected with an appropriate range of treatment options.

The third recommendation is that the standard rate of remission should be increased from one-quarter to one-third, with a possible further increase to one-half for certain categories of prisoner, in particular first-timers. The fourth is that a legislative framework should be provided for all forms of early release, including parole. The fifth is that there should be a rebalancing of the system so that more prisoners are held in open prisons than is the case at present, and that all prisoners are held in sanitary and uncrowded conditions that are not an affront to human dignity and a threat to bodily integrity.

Were they to be adopted these recommendations would lead to significant cost savings over time. They are pragmatic and evidence-based. This combination of virtues does not guarantee implementation, but it places the onus on those who might oppose such a policy shift to come up with coherent arguments for their position rather than lapsing into the vacuous sloganising that so often characterises debates in criminal justice.

There have been many reports down the years advocating a reappraisal of penal policy along the lines set out by the committee. These have not had a sustained effect. What is different today is that the recommendations have attracted cross-party support, they are precisely focused, and their impact is measurable. In addition the financial and social costs of inaction have become too great to ignore.

The challenge is to close the gap that exists between worthwhile proposals on paper and real progress on the ground.

There is one obvious danger. This is that the government will delay taking action until other deliberative processes that are currently under way, such as the strategic review of penal policy and the drafting of a White Paper on crime, have come to a conclusion. Such a scenario should be avoided. The committee has charted a sensible route out of a difficult situation. Further drift is in no-one’s interest.

Ian O’Donnell is professor of criminology at University College Dublin

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