Criminal justice policy should be based on systematic research

 

PAUL O'CONNORoutlines the role of UCD’s Institute of Criminology in producing evidence-based research for policy-making

A LITTLE over a decade ago the Institute of Criminology was established in the School of Law at UCD. Since then, the multifaceted issue of crime and punishment has never ceased to occupy a position of prominence in the agendas of political parties, the media, and in the general consciousness of the public at large.

It is not at all surprising that this should be so and, indeed, will continue to be the case, given the problem of crime raises a host of issues pertaining to social order, the protection of the community, social disadvantage, the legal and constitutional rights of individuals, the quality of justice, the organisation and effectiveness of law enforcement, and the punishment of wrongdoing.

It is plainly the case that there is a huge need for comprehensive and systematic research into crime and punishment in Ireland. It was the clear-sighted recognition of this need that formed the driving force behind the decision to establish the institute.

Its creation, made possible by the generous support of Atlantic Philanthropies, was viewed as an initiative that would, for the first time in the history of the State, enable crime in all its manifestations to be studied and analysed from a wide range of perspectives.

In so doing it would fill major, not to say embarrassing, deficits in the knowledge and understanding of crime within the jurisdiction. In all of this it was fully recognised that international perspectives on crime would inform national perspectives and approaches to criminal justice policy, and that the institute would form part of the international community of criminologists.

In reflecting on the contribution the institute has made over its 10-year existence and its potential for the future, the stark and uncomfortable reality is that there remains a critical need for criminological research that will assist our lawmakers. Too little is known about the dimension of crime and punishment in Ireland and, from a public policy perspective, there is a paucity of information to guide decision-making.

This was recognised by the former minister for justice, equality and law reform, John O’Donoghue, who, in a speech to mark the official launch of the institute, referred to the importance and value of its research function and its role in contributing to and enhancing the State’s capacity for policy planning.

Some flavour of the rich and varied criminological and criminal justice research landscape can be gathered when one considers the many issues that arise in such significant areas as: the nature and extent of crime in Ireland; trends and patterns of crime; the social and economic cost of crime; the role of the criminal justice system in the management of crime; the nature and operation of modern policing; and the relative efficacy of penal measures. Many more areas can be identified.

In this brief survey of the institute it is, perhaps, worth drawing attention to its role in integrating a broad spectrum of disciplines. This arises from one of its core objectives, which is to engage in high-quality, interdisciplinary research on crime and punishment in Ireland, and to develop a close working relationship with governmental, professional and other bodies and agencies actively involved in the prevention, detection, prosecution, trial and punishment of criminal conduct.

It is this overarching objective which gives to the institute its interdisciplinary quality, necessitating the utilisation of expertise drawn from the disciplines of law, criminology, psychology, psychiatry, demography, statistics, economics and public administration.

While the institute has and will continue to have an independent research agenda, one of its primary objectives is to provide the raw materials for social policy and law reform and to make available baseline information.

Looking to the future, subjects that are particularly worthy of research include drugs- and alcohol-related disorder, economic and high-tech crime, sex offenders, human trafficking, money-laundering and youth offenders.

However, in looking to the future, there is a need to be realistic.

In this regard, one must recognise the challenges faced by the institute, and more generally by those working and researching in the field of criminology.

Some of these stem from academic concerns in respect of how the discipline should be developed. Others are of a more practical kind and relate to resources such as staffing and funding levels for research.

In the coming decade the institute will continue to give priority to its research mission – a mission that is broad enough to embrace both blue-skies research and policy relevant research. It will continue to stress the importance of the relationship between criminological research and the formation of criminal justice policy.

Evidence-based research can help shape such policy and make an important contribution towards effecting beneficial change.

By so doing, the institute, at its deepest level, is really concerned with the relationship between the liberty of individuals and the legitimate interest of the State in maintaining social order.

Prof Paul O’Connor is director of the UCD Institute of Criminology