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Column: Long jail terms don’t work in tackling crime – no matter what ‘common sense’ says

Our prisons are bursting, and yet we continue to lock more people up. To keep communities safe we need a serious rethink, writes Liam Herrick.

Liam Herrick

THE RECENT DECISION to abandon Thornton Hall will, hopefully, turn out to be a watershed moment in Irish penal policy. The abandonment of the hugely expensive ‘white elephant’ plan to massively increase the size of our prison system has finally shifted attention to the quality of that system, and whether it is working as it should in terms of making society safer.

More importantly, the end of grandiose building projects that are now unaffordable (arguably they never were affordable in the first place) means that we can finally concentrate on the most cost-effective ways to tackle crime – something that has not been at the centre of justice thinking in this country for some time.

Over the past twenty years (possibly even longer) there has been a destructive drift towards ‘common sense’ and posturing policies on crime, and away from cold evidence of what actually works in making communities safer. The growth of our prison system – which has doubled in size in the last 14 years – is just one symptom of this problem, but more widely the tone of justice policy discussion started to deteriorate from the moment John O’Donoghue, then Minister for Justice, started to talk about “zero tolerance” in the mid-1990s.

From that point, being seen to be tough on crime became more important than actually focusing on what was likely to work in reducing crime. In a time of prosperity, with an apparent surplus of public funds with which to play populist politics, successive Governments ploughed ahead with prison expansion – and with putting in place the laws and policies to fill those prisons.

‘The political message was clear’

The political message was clear – getting tough on crime means locking up more prisoners – but it is interesting to chart the factors that caused our prison population to double between 1997 and 2010. For example, it is striking that crime rates overall haven’t changed significantly, either up or down, over the past five years, but imprisonment has gone up by 11-13% every year. The main explanation behind this increase is that people convicted of the same crimes are spending longer in prison. This is down to changes in law, the creation of new offences and the introduction of mandatory minimum sentences for existing crimes.

‘Common sense’ tells us this should make us all safer, but the evidence doesn’t support this. Take drug crime, the area in which the change in sentencing has been most pronounced. Does anyone seriously believe that imprisoning low-level players in the drug trade for 5-10 years is an effective strategy for reducing the volume of the overall drug market? Is there any evidence from anywhere in the world that this has worked? We only have to look at the United States to see the absolute social and economic disaster that a sentencing-led response to drugs has produced.

What has happened in Ireland since 1999, when mandatory sentencing for drugs was introduced, is not that we have detained more high-level drug dealers, or even that we have detained high-level drug dealers for longer – what has happened is that we have been imprisoning large numbers of low-level figures in the drugs trade (the “mules or users” in the words of Minister Shatter) on disproportionately long sentences because our law treats anyone found in possession of a certain amount of controlled substances the same, regardless of their position in the pyramid.

‘Locking up more prisoners is a highly expensive response’

Of course locking up more prisoners for longer is a highly expensive response to crime – the most expensive means at our disposal. When building prisons was not a problem, Government could ignore that these policies have a direct cost and, in real terms, were taking funds away from other, more effective crime reduction policies. Now that financial resources are vastly reduced, there has been a welcome if overdue return to looking at what actually works.

Speaking at an IPRT event in September, current Minister for Justice Alan Shatter referred to research carried out by the RAND Corporation in the US, which found that investing in ordinary policing is more cost effective than imprisonment in reducing drug use or drug-related offending; and providing appropriate treatment for serious drug abusers is more effective still.

It is hardly rocket science: it costs upwards from €70,000 per year to hold an offender in prison (and this figure does not include education or training provision) – think what could be achieved if just a fraction of these amounts were spent on resourcing services, treatments and supports in the community. In simple terms, prevention and intervention is cheaper and more effective than the ‘cure’ which is not working: rocketing levels of imprisonment.

In the cold light of day, we have ended up with a huge and expensive prison system and the services that are actually capable of addressing problems such as drugs in society continue to be underfunded. The good news is that if we want to move to more effective crime policies, which have a safer society as their core goal, we have a clear picture of where we should be investing: we need to invest in community policing, in service and amenities for communities faced with high crime rates, and most importantly we need to invest in services for alcohol and drug treatment and in mental health services, especially for adolescents.

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‘We need to make our prisons work’

We also need to make our prisons work for those who we do imprison so that released prisoners don’t continue to offend on their release. IPRT believes that prison has a role to play in making society safer – but not as the prison system is currently run: locking people up in overcrowded, unfit conditions, with 25% of prisoners slopping out, closed workshops, little access to drug-free landings, and so on, does not make society safer.

In order for prisons to function as they should, we have got to get prison numbers back down to levels at which the IPS can fulfil its function – which, after all, is to change offending behaviour and prepare prisoners for their eventual release back into society as active citizens. A good start would be to review – with a view to reversing – mandatory sentencing policies, alongside recent proposals for incentivised early release of some prisoners, and an increase in the use of community service as an alternative to prison.

Ultimately, it is in everybody’s interest that crime prevention in communities should be the main justice priority, not building prisons. It is also in everybody’s interest that prison conditions and regimes support and encourage change in offending behaviour. For every prisoner who does not reoffend on release, there is one less victim – and for every young person who gets the services he or she needs in the community to stay away from criminal behaviour, there is a substantial reduction in economic and social costs to society. Now that’s common sense.

Liam Herrick is the Executive Director of the Irish Penal Reform Trust: www.iprt.ie. Byline photograph by Derek Speirs.

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Liam Herrick

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