Surge in prison population requires remedial action


OPINION:What can be done to reduce our reliance on prison? A key part of any initiative must be crime prevention

There was a time when the Irish prison population was so small that it excited little sustained interest. The treatment of prisoners came to attention sporadically, usually in the aftermath of a riot, murder, suicide, seizure of contraband, or the publication of a report that lamented the continued existence of substandard conditions. After the crisis had passed attention soon refocused on other, more pressing, concerns.

As this week’s series in The Irish Times shows, the prison population has surged to such a high level that the need for remedial action can no longer be ignored. Too many people are spending too much time in institutions where they fear for their personal safety and from which they emerge, unimproved, to re-enter society. This is in no one’s interest.

Prison systems all over the world experience problems with drug misuse, violence, overcrowding and recidivism. Additional challenges are posed by increasing numbers of lifers, sex offenders, foreign nationals, elderly prisoners and the mentally ill.

It would be too much to expect Ireland to remain unaffected by these trends. But there is some comfort to be drawn from the fact that they are less well established here. This means that if swift action is taken there is scope for amelioration.

The danger with allowing an unsatisfactory state of affairs to persist is that we become inured to a situation that should scandalise us. What has come to light in recent years regarding the treatment of children in institutional care is a salutary reminder of the importance of acting now rather than waiting to bewail our inaction later.

So what could be done to reduce our dependence on the prison?

The first element of any coherent strategy is to direct resources at initiatives that are known to reduce the likelihood that children will become involved in criminality. Research has been carried out in the United States with low-income families living in high-crime areas. The findings are that – over time – a combination of early childhood education, parent training, family therapy and home visitation by healthcare professionals yields substantial benefits.

The young people involved in these schemes are less likely to engage in delinquency and drug taking and, as a result, to become entangled with the criminal justice system. They are more likely to become productive citizens who find good jobs and pay taxes.

Crime control

Cost-benefit analyses show that for every dollar invested in this way there is a considerable return, sometimes as high as tenfold. If the €45 million spent on an ill-conceived plan for a gigantic prison at Thornton Hall had instead been made available to support vulnerable families and children, future generations would have been in our debt.

While the results of such crime prevention programmes take many years to accrue, the evidence of their effectiveness is so compelling that they merit serious consideration as part of any package of penal reform measures. They have the additional virtue of de-emphasising the role of the prison in crime control.

A more immediate impact could be achieved by reducing the number of people sent to prison after conviction and shortening the amount of time they spend there. Prison committals have increased dramatically and long sentences have become common. If the prison population is to be reduced to manageable numbers action will be needed on several fronts.

Community sanctions could be used in place of many short prison terms. There may also be a greater role for restorative justice whereby victims and offenders are brought together in an attempt to repair the harms caused by crime.

More strenuous action could be taken to ensure that fine defaulters are kept out of prison, save in the most exceptional circumstances. The report of the Irish Prison Service for 2011 reveals that 7,500 prisoners, constituting the majority of those committed under sentence during the year, fell into this category. Early indications are that the problem may have worsened in 2012, with 4,500 fine defaulters jailed between January and June.

These are individuals whose offences are deemed to be too minor to merit imprisonment but who end up in custody when the fine goes unpaid. They do not spend long behind bars, often no more than a few days, but they add to pressure at the prisons where they are sent.

For those who have committed serious offences, for whom anything other than a substantial prison sentence would be inappropriate, the emphasis must be on pre-release preparation.

Enhanced remission (33 per cent as opposed to the standard 25 per cent) is allowed under the prison rules for prisoners who take part in treatment programmes. The potential of this facility to reduce sentences has not been exploited. Employing it more widely would incentivise prisoners to make rehabilitation a priority, reduce prison overcrowding, enhance public safety, and save money.

Reform of the parole process is necessary also. At present only prisoners serving at least eight years, or life, are eligible to apply. Why not make parole a possibility for anyone sentenced to four years or more? Release on parole is based on a satisfactory risk assessment and the individual is subject to recall in the event that concerns arise about his or her behaviour. As all prisoners serving fixed terms will be released at some point it makes sense, wherever possible, to time their release so that it is supported and supervised.

Parole regime

Such a move would require additional resources for the parole board but these would be more than recouped from the savings that would accompany any reduction in prisoners.

It is essential to retain a sense of confidence that progress is possible.

Other European states, Finland is a striking example, have succeeded in cutting prison populations. Strong political leadership, greater attention to sentencing practice, imaginative use of non-custodial penalties, early release and faith in the ability of people to change are required if we are to chart a similar course.

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

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