'Us and them' mentality no help in reducing crime


OPINION:ALL OF us, whether on the political left or right or in the centre, have a common interest in reducing the level of crime in society.

To develop effective policies, it would seem reasonable to discuss the causes of crime. But such discussion often produces more heat than light – perhaps for very understandable reasons.

First, many of us – probably most of us – have been victims of crime at some point, and some have been very upset or even traumatised by the experience. We may have little patience with efforts to understand what causes crime; we just want the perpetrators punished.

Second, any attempt to understand the causes of crime is frequently – and wrongly – misinterpreted as trying to excuse the perpetrators of crime. However, to suggest that a local authority should eliminate a bad bend on a road, where speeding motorists frequently cause accidents, is not to excuse the reckless behaviour of the motorists who speed round the bend. Third, the debate on crime is, to a large extent, filtered through an ideological lens.

Discussion on crime generally presupposes a distinction between the offenders and the victims of crime: “them” and “us”. However, most of us are both victims and offenders.

If I have ever broken the speed limit, I have broken the law. But we do not consider this offence, which is one that “we” might commit, to be in the same category as joyriding, for example, which is one “they” might commit, even though far more deaths and injuries on our roads are caused by speeding than by joyriding. It is also worth remembering that the greatest suffering inflicted on Irish people in recent years was caused, not by burglars in jeans, but by professionals in designer suits.

Many of those who end up in prison were also, in their earlier years, victims of serious crime. Following a visit to Mountjoy Prison some time ago, I was reflecting on the lives of the nine prisoners I had just met: six were known to me to have been victims of sexual abuse as children, and the other three I did not know well enough to be able to say. As a society, we express a great sympathy for the victims of institutional abuse, but my very conservative “guesstimate” is that at least one prisoner in four is a former resident.

The majority of people in our prisons come from a small number of disadvantaged communities, as John Lonergan, former governor of Mountjoy, repeatedly tried to remind us.

We know from various studies that a totally disproportionate percentage of people in prison have low levels of literacy, lack skills and qualifications, have left school early and never had a job. A high percentage have an addiction to drugs and/or alcohol. The incidence of mental illness among prisoners is also disproportionate; many have experienced homelessness and/or housing insecurity.

This is not to excuse their involvement in crime, as most of those who experience poverty and deprivation do not turn to crime, but it does suggest that if we are really serious about reducing crime then the social deprivation and addiction problems that underlie much criminal behaviour would be a good place to start.

Furthermore, if we want to reduce crime, then the focus of imprisonment must be rehabilitation, given that recidivism plays a major role in crime levels. The recidivist rate in Ireland is high: one in two leaving prison will be back again within four years.

Why should we be surprised? Great numbers of our prisoners spend their time in overcrowded, drug-filled and violent prisons with little or no constructive activity to occupy them. The only skills that many prisoners acquire while in prison are how to commit crime more successfully when they get out.

The boredom, even meaninglessness, of prison life, combined with a ready availability of drugs, creates a drug culture within some of our prisons that is difficult for some prisoners to resist. I personally know of at least 40 young people, who never touched a drug before going into prison, and came out addicted to heroin. Warehousing of prisoners is not conducive to their rehabilitation.

Many people leave prison with no arrangement having been put in place to ensure they have accommodation, access to a social welfare payment, and supports to help them adjust to life outside. When people are in custody, we have a great opportunity to address the personal difficulties that they have experienced in life. We also have a duty of care to ensure that on release they have some chance of not rapidly sliding back into crime.

Ultimately it is society’s attitude to criminals such as “them” that prevents any serious attempt to reduce crime levels. Most people now know that 196 young people died in, or shortly after leaving, the care of the State in the decade 2000-2010.

Most died from unnatural causes – drug overdose, suicide, violence. There was an investigation and a report, followed, quite rightly, by widespread outrage at the failure of the State to adequately care for them.

The need to rectify the deficiencies in the system and provide the necessary resources to do so was agreed by all political parties.

However, in the same decade, 135 people died while in prison or within one month of leaving prison. In other words, at the time of their death they were, or had recently been, in the care of the State.

Most died from unnatural causes – drug overdose, suicide, violence. But there was no investigation, no report, no outrage, no comment from any politician and, of course, no commitment to dealing with the deficiencies in the system that may have led to some of these deaths.

Some will read this opinion piece through their own ideological lens and write it off as typical left-wing liberalism. But through my ideological lens, it is common sense. And this is where most discussions on crime end up.

Fr Peter McVerry SJ is a director of the Peter McVerry Trust and a member of the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice team. He will be speaking at the conference Re-imagining Imprisonment in Europe, Trinity College Dublin, September 5th-7th 2012. For information visit www.jcfj.ie

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