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Dublin: 9 °C Tuesday 23 April, 2019
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Most criminals reoffend. So, what's the answer? Locking them up and throwing away the key?

For repeat offenders of any crime, after a certain point there is perhaps very little we can do as a society to help them, but other countries are shaking things up, writes Aaron McKenna.

Aaron McKenna

EVERY YEAR WITHOUT fail the festive season is tainted by the fear of falling victim to crime. In particular, burglaries are rife at this time when houses are unusually stocked with plentiful amounts of plunder that comes wrapped, unopened and easily re-sold for illicit profit.

The Central Statistics Office this week released the latest batch of numbers on recidivism, the rate at which released criminals re-offend. In total 47.5% of people released from prison go on to re-offend, a reduction on the figure from the previous cohort studied by the CSO.

Among burglars, however, a staggering 69.9% of released prisoners went on to get caught committing another crime; an increase on the prior year.

Among all re-offenders, 64.6% are caught committing another crime within 6 months of their release. Almost 80% reoffend within the first year.

The gardaí and other agencies are mounting a massive operation at present to try and crack down on burglary, a crime that has been on the up in recent years.

Intelligence operations and increased patrols and other efforts are diverting resources and Garda time to try and make life more difficult for those who would violate people’s homes.

What should we do?

It seems to me that there is a far easier way: state authorities know the majority of burglars very well, catching seven in 10 of them at the game again within four years of their release from a previous conviction. So, round them all up and throw them away to spend Christmas with one another in protective custody. Protective for us, from their crimes; and protective for them, from running into disgruntled house owners in the dead of night.

For repeat offenders of any crime, after a certain point there is perhaps very little we can do as a society to help them. But too often individuals with previous convictions stretching into the dozens are let out on bail or released early from prison in a rotating door system.

Meanwhile, younger criminal minds who can perhaps be saved from a life of perpetual misery are thrown into the same cages as seasoned criminals to better learn the trade.

We need to build a carrot and stick prison system. For repeat offenders and those awaiting trial on new charges, we need to build the prison capacity to hold them for their full sentences; and during the period between a new charge being raised and a trial being held, on the basis that they are a very high risk to law abiding citizens when let free.

If we do not have the capacity in our prisons, we need to build temporary ones. Incarceration should not be dictated by the availability of beds in warm prisons.

If we have more criminals than cells, then it is time to set up a double fenced off area on flatlands with guard towers and the type of comfortable tents and beds we provide our troops when overseas on peacekeeping missions.

Capacity in prisons

Capacity is not difficult to come by when you decide that what’s good enough for a soldier defending peace is good enough for a lifelong criminal.

So too, on the other hand, we must acknowledge the fact that for young offenders there is hope in a different kind of prison system.

Norway runs a prison that had an €800,000 art budget at construction, contains a house where prisoners can live with their families during visits, and has more guards and support staff than prisoners. It houses thieves, murderers, and even has a wing for sex offenders. The softer prison system in Norway delivers a recidivism rate less than half of our own.

Though hard to swallow the idea of convicted criminals in such surroundings, it’s difficult to argue against a better return on investment in prisons by actually reducing the amount of times someone needs to be a guest of one. By making the experience more about redemption than punishment one can improve outcomes over time.

Perhaps, too, if we had a black and white model for prisoners to consider then their behaviour would be different: Behave yourself, and we’ll send you to the prison that’s more like a big school and give you opportunities to enhance your life. Misbehave, or come back for a second or third conviction, and we’re sending you to that prison camp we accidentally built on a flood plain. Sorry about that.

Be safe this Christmas season, keep lights on and doors locked. I’m sorry you have to worry about such things, but that’s the cost of having a justice system that cannot effectively deal with criminality.

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