Smarter, more cost-effective justice can also be justice that is fairer

Opinion: Those who offend must be punished, but always with a view to rehabilitation

Locked away: we have an ambition to  cut the prison population by a third over the next 10 years. Photograph: PA

Locked away: we have an ambition to cut the prison population by a third over the next 10 years. Photograph: PA


Smart justice involves recognising that punishment plays a limited role in preventing crime and protecting communities. It requires a refocusing of attention away from traditional approaches, which tend to be costly and are often of dubious efficacy. It encourages innovation and unorthodox thinking. It offers solutions rooted in evidence rather than politically inspired or crisis-driven ones. It is open to review and revision.

Criminal justice systems are seldom smart. They tend to be expensive, inflexible and unimaginative. When law-and-order issues become urgent, more of the same is usually called for, whether this is expressed in terms of police recruitment, repressive legislation, harsher sentencing or new prisons. The links between such demands and the problems they are intended to address are not made explicit. There is little sense that responses are proportionate or precisely targeted.

The taxpayer is ill-served in the debate about crime and punishment because good quality data is rarely available to allow proper comparison of competing proposals. One of the bodies abolished in recent years is the National Crime Council, set up to enhance public understanding and provide independent advice to government.

White paper
There seems to be a difficulty bringing deliberative processes to a conclusion and then acting. The white paper on crime is long overdue and recommendations made by numerous committees and advisory groups have been published, ignored and then forgotten. This creates a context in which expenditure and public anxiety can rise in tandem while the underlying problems are scarcely affected.

But there is another way. One interesting area is what is known as “hot spots” policing. Research from the US and UK shows crime tends to be concentrated in a relatively small number of locations and to be most likely to occur at particular times. When scarce police resources are targeted at these there is a significant reduction in violence and disorder and, importantly, the problem is not simply displaced.

Drug courts
Another area where the signs are encouraging is the use of specialised drug courts for adult offenders. This involves tailoring treatment programmes to individual circumstances. The emphasis is on problem-solving rather than punishment and the approach taken is collaborative and non-adversarial.

There is strong evidence is that adult drug courts reduce recidivism and they have been adopted in a growing number of countries, including a small-scale initiative in the Republic. This is smart justice because it reduces dependence on imprisonment and shows offenders can become responsible citizens if given the tools to rebuild their lives.

There are three reasons to be cautiously optimistic that fresh thinking about criminal justice may receive a more favourable reception today than it has previously. The first is that the economic situation requires cost savings, which encourages innovation.

The second is that the Minister for Justice and the director general of the Irish Prison Service are committed to reducing prison numbers and their leadership adds impetus to the reform agenda.

The third is the recommendation by the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality to shrink the prison population by a third over 10 years, an ambitious but achievable target. If the associated savings were invested in enhanced supports for the most vulnerable, drawing on the best research evidence about effective interventions, future demands on the criminal justice system would be further reduced.

But this is not just about spending less. It is about making sure that those who come into conflict with the law are punished in accordance with the harm they have caused but always with a view to their future reintegration. A smart society is a fair society.

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

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