CONFUSION ON PRISON POLICY

 

There must be deep public concern at the revelation that a man recently arrested in connection with a high profile crime had been released only a few weeks ago, after serving less than two years of a six year sentence, to allow him to go abroad. The scheme which made this possible is reminiscent of the traditional practice of district justices as they were once known of sending local miscreants to England instead of giving them a few weeks in the lock up. But that kind of response is totally inappropriate when the conviction is not for minor larceny or brawling but for involvement in serious crime. His release on parole appears to have been facilitated by the fact that the man was technically a citizen of the country to which he was deported, highlighting a gross anomaly in the administration of the law.

If this were all, the episode last week could, perhaps, be put down to official bungling. But that is not the case. The root cause is confusion over prison policy and criminal justice policy in general, combined with a reluctance to allocate adequate funds. This may be a chicken and egg situation, with the desire to restrict spending dictating an artificial limit to the prison population, or an ill judged humanity in deciding when to release individuals early which falsifies the real extent of the need for prison places. Perhaps the answer, as far as the prisons go, lies somewhere in between, but any long term approach to the problem must put it in the overall context of reform to which it properly belongs.

Certainly, while there is little or no demand in this State for a heavily punitive attitude towards those who break the law, there is growing frustration at the absence of consistency and co ordination in sentencing policy, and above all at the seemingly arbitrary way in which sentences imposed by the courts are put into effect. The law suffers if it is not seen to be fair, compassionate and reasonably predictable.

As our Security Correspondent, Jim Cusack, reported last Friday, between 20 and 25 per cent of the 2,000 convicted prisoners in our jails are on temporary release at any one time. If this were a structured attempt to rehabilitate and create chances of a fresh start, it would be a benevolent and praiseworthy policy and would have a positive impact on the level of criminality. But the reason for the "revolving door" is to make room for new prisoners, and its effect can be the reverse of positive in deterring crime. When it is applied with such apparent lack of forethought and prudence as in recent cases or, indeed, in the case of, anyone found guilty of a major crime of violence, including sexual crimes, the good sense of the system must be called in question.

To seek answers in isolation is fatuous. A criminal justice system is multifaceted, with policing, prison and other correctional services, the judiciary and legal reform all inter linked and all requiring to be taken into account in making it more effective. There is no perfect way of preventing crime, protecting society and reintegrating convicted criminals, but hard experience reinforces the belief that at present the State is failing on all three counts.

There is no criminal justice policy as such in this State. No other area of State responsibility education, health, social welfare, infrastructure is allowed to meander along year after year without co ordination, without objectives, without clear aims and policies, without defined measures of success or failure, without adequate provision for research. And the politicians of all parties are guilty of failing to highlight these deficiencies. It is far easier to utter platitudes in the wake of each successive failure. They share in the failure along with those who, for the present, hold political responsibility.