Breaking the cycle of reoffending: ‘People say a leopard doesn’t change its spots but that’s not true’

CSO found 28 per cent of people placed on the Probation Service reoffended within one year in 2018

Jason Campbell was 14 when he first went to prison. Growing up in what he describes as a dysfunctional household, he regularly witnessed violence, addiction and mental health issues.

By the age of 11, he was dependent on alcohol and had befriended a group of boys who were causing trouble in his locality of Tallaght.

“To escape one madness,” he said, “I went to another. I was walking on eggshells at home, but at least I could kind of control this chaos outside.

“That’s how it all developed. I started getting in trouble with the police because I was drinking alcohol. Before I knew what was going on, I was committing crime, petty crime.”


Now 42, Campbell has served five prison sentences, including one in a home for young offenders. The longest sentence was 13 years, with his offences ranging from petty crime and joyriding to armed robbery.

The reoffending, he said, was largely due to falling back into bad habits after being released from prison. Campbell became addicted to heroin during one prison stint. Upon his release, he turned to cocaine. “I had to pay for that addiction, and I did so by robbing.”

The last time he was in custody, it was because he committed a crime with the aim of getting caught, choosing to return to prison rather than continuing to struggle to readapt to his life outside.

“I wasn’t able to cope. I couldn’t even have a conversation with people. I consciously wanted to go back to prison,” he said.

Campbell has been out of prison since 2017, having committed his last offence in 2016, and has been clean since.

He attributed this to the support he received on his release, particularly through the Probation Service’s Bridge project. He now works as a community prison links worker at Frontline Make Change, which seeks to help those with addiction issues.

“Now, my self-esteem has increased. I’m a dad, a grandad, a brother, a friend. I’m the type of person I’ve always wanted to be,” he said.

The Central Statistics Office (CSO) last week published statistics which found that 28 per cent of people placed on probation reoffended within a year, down from 29 per cent in 2017 and 31 per cent in 2016. Some 48 per cent of individuals who received a probation order in 2016 committed at least one offence within three years, for which they received a conviction.

The rate of reoffending was higher among younger offenders, the statistics show. Some 36 per cent of male adults aged under 25 who received probation orders in 2018 reoffended within a year, compared to 27 per cent among women.

Mark Wilson, director of the Probation Service, said the organisation puts plans in place to help individuals to make changes to their lives and reduce their likelihood of reoffending. Some of the biggest challenges, he said, are helping people to change the way they think and how they spend their time, and counteracting their lack of experience in the worlds of work or education.

Some 81 per cent of the service’s clients reported misusing substances, he said, with 48 per cent identifying a link between the substance misuse and their offending. A further 40 per cent present with mental health issues, while about 70 per cent are not earning.

“They’re coming from a section of society where there is a high dependence on State payments and complex needs around homelessness, addiction and mental health,” Wilson added. “If we can have positive outcomes in the community, we should be maximising how we do that. Prison needs to be a sanction of last resort.”

Keith Purcell has been imprisoned around 20 times, all of which he attributes to trauma he experienced as a child and his addiction to drugs.

Feeling stupid in school, and getting in trouble with his family, he ran away from home, a decision which he said resulted in him stealing food and other essentials in order to survive.

Prison, he said, was a safe place. “The minute I came out of the gates, I was in trouble.”

That all changed when he got involved with Cork Alliance Centre, who he said were “the first people to ever believe in me”.

Now, he has a job as a key worker, a level 5 degree and is in recovery. “If I didn’t have the support and the service here, I don’t think I’d be alive today. Addiction really had a grip on me,” Purcell said.

Campbell also agreed that post-release support and supervision is the key to preventing reoffending.

“People say a leopard doesn’t change its spots but that’s not true,” he said. “Once there is support, help and guidance, people can become the person they were supposed to be. When you address these issues, you can flourish. We’ve done bad things, but we’re not bad people.”

Shauna Bowers

Shauna Bowers

Shauna Bowers is a reporter for The Irish Times