Incarceration as a last resort

Prisons and recidivism report highlights progress in context of a more enlightened criminal system

 

One of the most striking differences between this State and the US involves the percentage of people serving prison sentences. For every 100,000 citizens there, some 743 are in jail, compared to 577 in Russia, 152 in the UK and 88 here.

Ireland has moved into the company of Nordic countries in terms of operating a more enlightened criminal justice system and, following reforms involving structured prison release and improved probationary services, re-offending rates are falling.

Irish prisons have traditionally served as places of punishment, rather than rehabilitation. Government policy in the late 1990s, involving “zero tolerance” for crime and the introduction of mandatory prison sentences, brought a rise in inmates, the emergence of prison gangs and increasing violence.

Conditions became so bad at Mountjoy and Portlaoise that an official report suggested they should be closed. Ten years later, a similar recommendation was accepted and implemented by government in relation to St Patrick’s Institution for Young Offenders.

Against that background, the latest report on recidivism within the Irish prison system represents encouraging news. The Central Statistics Office has, with the assistance of the Prison Services, provided information on recidivism within the prison population since 2007.

The latest figures – from 2010 – show that within three years of release 45 per cent of male inmates are back in jail. That figure has fallen by 10 points since 2007 but it is still double the Norwegian rate. In these cases, the most common re-conviction offences involve burglary, theft and public order.

Progress has been made in developing probationary and community services, with the co-operation of the Garda and courts. As a consequence, there has been a three-point drop in recidivism, down to 38 per cent. Public order, theft and drugs remain the most frequent offences.

Locking people up is a simplistic response to low-level crime, particularly when a high percentage of those involved have mental health and drug-related problems. Studies have shown the extreme vulnerability of these individuals when they are released, in an unstructured way, from prison.

The likelihood of re-offending becomes elevated. Reforms in that and other areas have had a measurable impact on recidivism. Those changes have not only saved the State a lot of money in prison costs, they have made communities safer and individuals more law-abiding.

Prisons should only be used as a last resort, to detain dangerous criminals who pose a threat to society. Even there, education and rehabilitation services should be employed to ensuring that alternative avenues of behaviour are available to inmates on their release. Incarceration and the loss of personal freedom is an extreme punishment. It should be used sparingly.

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