IPRT - Irish Penal Reform Trust

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Ebulletin #34

31st May 2006

VOICES RISING - Volume 4, Number 5

IPRT holds 2006 Annual General Meeting

On 25 May the IPRT held its 2006 Annual General Meeting.  The meeting saw the official launch of the 2005 Annual Report as well as the election of the new Board of Directors.  Claire Hamilton was re-elected as IPRT Chairperson for 2006-2007.

Thanks to the IPRT members and volunteers who came out to the event! 

IPRT 2006 Annual Lecture with Thomas Mathiesen Postponed

Due to the unexpected illness of our guest speaker, Prof. Thomas Mathiesen, the IPRT 2006 Annual Lecture originally scheduled for 25 May had to be cancelled. 

We are hoping to reschedule Prof. Mathiesen's lecture for October.

Launch of new report on Alternatives to Custody

Judge Peter Smithwick will officially launch a new report on Alternatives to Custody on 15 June. 

This report, commissioned by the Community Foundation of Ireland and conducted in partnership with the IPRT, was prepared by Dr. Mairead Seymour.

The launch will take place Thursday, 15 June at 5:30pm at the offices of the Community Foundation of Ireland, 32 Lower O'Connell Street, Dublin 1. 

Irish Times Opinion Piece: "McDowell's 'get tough' policy on prisons destined to fail" by Rick Lines

The Minister for Justice is simply playing to the gallery with his shortsighted approach to prisons, writes Rick Lines

The prisons inspector, Justice Dermot Kinlen, has ignited a storm of controversy with his comments on our prison system.

He described our prison system as a failure. He spoke passionately about inhumane prison conditions, lack of rehabilitation programmes, a culture of bureaucratic conservatism within the Department of Justice undermining potential reform, and the resistance to a truly independent prison inspectorate.

While Justice Kinlen's comments are damning, they are not new. Indeed, they are consistent with the conclusions of his reports over the past three years. The real news is that the inspector felt the need to go public with these concerns, which speaks to a frustration that his recommendations have fallen on deaf ears.

While the inspector characterised Justice Minister Michael McDowell as being "too conservative" to effectively reform the prison system, in truth being "too conservative" or "not conservative enough" has little to do with the shortcomings of the Minister's approach.

There are essentially two types of political leaders. Those who surround themselves with the best and brightest minds, and use the gathered expertise to tackle complex issues - even where the expert advice is controversial or at odds with the leader's own beliefs.

Then there are those who are convinced that they themselves possess the best and brightest mind, and surround themselves with people who share, or won't challenge, their opinions.

Reforming the Irish prison system demands the former. Unfortunately, in Michael McDowell, we have the latter.

How else do we explain the parade of policies emanating from the Minister's office that have failed - often miserably - in other countries?

Super prisons, mandatory sentencing, Asbos, electronic tagging - the list goes on and on. The most recent example is the Minister's new prison drug strategy: a policy developed without consulting the National Drugs Strategy Team, the Government's own advisory committee on drugs policy.

Perhaps shutting the Government's own drug experts out of the process explains why Irish prisons are starting mandatory drug testing at exactly the same time the Scottish Prison Service is ending it after 10 years of expensive failure?

In rejecting the inspector's call for new rehabilitative approaches, such as enhanced family visiting and prisoner employment programmes, Mr McDowell stated he intends to run a prison system "in conformity with what ordinary people would want" and to implement policies "most people in Ireland would agree with".

The Irish Penal Reform Trust has long maintained that political and electoral calculations - rather than a commitment to evidence-based best practice - drive Mr McDowell's approach to prison and criminal justice policy. In his comments, the Minister himself admitted as much.

Mr McDowell - along with Enda Kenny, Pat Rabbitte and others who have been climbing over one another for a prime seat on the "get tough on crime" pre-election bandwagon - obviously believes this is what voters want.

Indeed, there will always be a constituency in the electorate and the media for whom no punishment is too harsh, no prison too big.

However, most Irish people are not vindictive in nature, and would gladly swap harsh policies that don't work, for humane policies that do.

Ultimately, people want policies and programmes that are effective - that rehabilitate prisoners and reduce reoffending, help people who use drugs and reduce criminal behaviour by addressing the root causes of petty crime.

"Get tough" approaches rarely accomplish any of these outcomes.

Yet few politicians have the courage to do what works in the face of the predictable, ritualised outrage from the "get tough" crowd.

The United States is the world's biggest jailer, and the country where many of the Minister's failed policies were pioneered. US politicians have developed "get tough" rhetoric into a twisted art form in hopes of winning votes.

Yet three weeks ago, a poll found that, when given a choice, Americans, by a ratio of 9 to 1 , actually want less prison and more rehabilitation for offenders.

Dr Barry Krisberg, of the US National Council on Crime and Delinquency, said: "These survey results tell us that Americans have looked at the 30-year experiment on getting tough with offenders and decided that it is no longer working.

"We have built up an unprecedented prison population of over two million inmates, but most of these offenders are returning home each year with few skills or support to keep them from going back to lives of crime."

We can only hope it won't take 30 years of failed policy in Ireland before we wake up to the same conclusion.

Rick Lines is the executive director of the Irish Penal Reform Trust

© The Irish Time

IPRT speaks on drug policy and human rights in Belgrade

In May, IPRT Executive Director Rick Lines travelled to Belgrade to participate in VANGUARD 2006, a conference on drug use, HIV/AIDS and youth in South Eastern Europe.

At the conference, Mr Lines spoke on an international panel on drug policy and human rights.

Letter to the Editor, Irish Times: "McDowell's Tough Talk on Drugs"


Minister for Justice Michael McDowell defends his "zero tolerance" drug policies by citing "the reality that we are obliged by European law to criminalise the possession of hard drugs".

While this may have provided a useful rhetorical flourish, the Minister is wrong. There is no EU legal measure obliging member-states to take any position on the possession of "hard drugs", or indeed any other type of drugs. The only such legal measure, adopted in 2004, was for the harmonisation of "minimum maximum" penalties for supply offences. Even this was set at a level well below those found in Irish law.

The European Union Drug Strategy, which itself is not legally binding, advocates a "balanced" approach to the issue of drugs, but it is in no way specific on criminal law issues or levels of penalties. While the EU Drug Strategy does call upon member-states to implement a range of activities that include taking action against drug dealers, it also calls for countries to expand the availability of services for drug users, including the types of harm-reduction programmes which the Minister refuses to implement.

Mr McDowell characterised those of us who advocate an evidence-based approach to drug use as suffering from "moral confusion". Unfortunately, in his comments this week, the Minister has yet again illustrated the factual confusion upon which he bases far too many of his policies.

Surely when it comes to addressing an issue as important as drug use, the least we can expect of our political leaders is that they get their facts straight.

Yours, etc,

Rick Lines, Executive Director, Irish Penal Reform Trust 

Prison Drug Strategy "substitutes gadgets for good practice"

The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) has today rubbished the Government's new prison drug strategy, calling it a "gadget"-based response that ignores international best practice, and an "opportunity missed" to effectively address the serious issue of drug use in prisons.

"Once again the Government has missed an opportunity to address the issue of drugs in prison in a serious manner," said IPRT Executive Director, Rick Lines. "Minister McDowell's drug strategy seems almost wilfully ignorant of everything we've learned about effective and evidence-based responses to drugs in prison over the past ten years. It's a publicity-driven policy that substitutes gadgets for good practice, and fails to pragmatically address the serious public health concerns raised by drug use in prisons."

Among the specific concerns raised by the IPRT:

  • The failure of Minister McDowell's strategy to follow the comprehensive and multi-faceted approach to drugs set out in the Government's own National Drugs Strategy
  • The failure to learn from and implement evidence-based best practice models from other jurisdictions
  • The decision to implement discredited Mandatory Drug Testing policies [Last year, the Scottish Prison Service announced it was cancelling its Mandatory Drug testing programme after ten years of failure.]
  • The failure to guarantee immediate access to drug treatment for prisoners who request it, even those who test positive as a result of Mandatory Drug Testing
  • The failure to enhance or improve access to methadone.  Prisoners will still be unable to initiate methadone treatment in prisons.
  • The refusal to provide HIV and Hepatitis C prevention measures in prisons, such as syringe exchange.  This in a context where over 25% of prisoners are infected with Hepatitis C , and Irish prisons have some of the highest levels of injecting drug use in Western Europe.
  • The failure to provide alternatives to prison for non-violent drug offenders, or those engaged in petty crime to support drug habits.
  • The criminalisation of prisoners' families as the source of the drug problem in prisons.

"The National Drug Strategy adopts a multi-faceted and comprehensive approach to dealing with drug use in Ireland.  Minister McDowell has obvioulsy decided that he knows better than the Government's own drug experts, and jettisoned the Government's own well-considerd approach to drugs," said Mr. Lines. "The results we see bear no resemblance to accepted good practice. Disturbingly, neither 'health' nor 'best practice' are terms found in the policy's statement of principles, which clearly shows it to be starting from a fundamentally flawed perspective."

"The Government's so-called 'heroin-free prisons' policy is little more than a justification for its own negligence, and its refusal to address drug use in prisons in a sensible or pragmatic manner.  Yesterday's announcement is yet further evidence of this Government's willingness to play politics with a serious public health concern."

Prison smoking ban would cause more problems than it would solve, says IPRT

The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) has characterised as "unworkable" today's call from the Prison Officer's Association to extend the smoking ban into prisons.

Commenting on the experience of other prison systems that have implemented complete non-smoking policies, the prison reform group concludes that such a ban would create more problems than it would solve.

"Prison Officers have a right to work in a smoke-free environment, just as non-smoking prisoners have a right to live in a smoke-free environment," said IPRT Executive Director, Rick Lines. "However, given that prisons are essentially the places of residence for prisoners during their sentences -- places from which smokers are obviously not free to simply step outside for a cigarette -- there needs to be special consideration made to balance the interests of smokers, non-smokers and prison workers."

The IPRT has consistently supported a plan in which smoking is banned from all public or shared areas of the prison, yet smoking prisoners are allowed to smoke either outside the prison or in their own cells.  As is the case in the Scottish prison system, prisoners are able to choose between living in a smoking or non-smoking cell.

The IPRT cites evidence showing an outright smoking ban is not only unworkable, but creates far more problems than it solves. 

"A smoking ban won't stop prisoners from lighting up.  But it will create yet another black market within the prison, a market characterised by the same types of bullying, violence, smuggling and corruption created by other illegal drugs," said Mr. Lines. 

The IPRT notes that in California, an $11 tin of tobacco sells on the prison black market for up to $200.  In some US prisons, contraband cigarettes have been reported as selling for up to $8 each.  In Indiana, the delay in prisoners' release dates as a result of cigarette violations has been estimated to cost the State as much as $6.6 million a year.

"Despite the fantasies of Minister McDowell, serious opinion agrees that we can never completely eliminate illegal drugs from prison.  This fact was admitted by the POA only yesterday.  If we are not able to keep illicit drugs out of prisons, does anyone really believe we can keep out a legal drug such as tobacco, which is available at every corner shop?" said Mr. Lines. 

"While we certainly need a sensible policy that respects the rights of prison staff and non-smoking prisoners, this can easily be accomplished without creating the security and violence problems associated with outright prohibition."

New reports from Canada show failure of Mandatory Sentencing

The Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network has published two new reports outlining the evidence against mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenders.  The reports Mandatory Minimum Sentences for Drug Offences: Myths vs. Reality and Mandatory Minimum Sentences for Drug Offences: Why Everyone Loses are available on their website.

Americans Abandon "Punishment Only" Attitudes in Effort to Reduce Crime

From every age, gender, economic, political, cultural and ethnic group and every geographic area, Americans overwhelmingly support the rehabilitation of non-violent criminals both before and after they leave prison, a new poll by Zogby International shows.

Three out of four Americans expressed either fear or concern about the 700,000 prisoners who are leaving U.S. prisons each year, and the fact that 60% of them are likely to commit crimes that send them back to prison, Zogby International's national survey showed. The poll explored what people think ought to be done about the situation.

The survey, sponsored by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, a leading criminal justice research organization, reveals that by almost an 9 to 1 margin (87% to 11%), the U.S. voting public is in favor of rehabilitative services for prisoners as opposed to a punishment only system. Of those polled, 70% favored these services both during incarceration and after release from prison.

Likely voters appear to recognize that our current correctional system does not help the problem of crime, the survey indicates. By strong majorities, Americans said they feel that a lack of life skills, the experience of being in prison, and the many obstacles faced upon reentry are major factors in the crimes that prisoners commit following their release.

By an overwhelming majority (82%), people feel that the lack of job training and job opportunities were significant barriers to those released prisoners who wanted to avoid committing subsequent crimes. Similar large majorities saw the lack of housing, medical and mental health services, drug treatment, family support and mentoring as additional barriers and thought that all of these services should be available to returning prisoners. Most of the respondents felt that these reentry services needed to be introduced to prisoners long before they are released.

When asked about pending legislation that would make federal funds available to communities for these services in support of successful reentry (The Second Chance Act), 78% were in support - and 40% of those strongly supported such assistance.

Dr. Barry Krisberg, the President of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, said "these survey results tell us that Americans have looked at the 30-year experiment on getting tough with offenders and decided that it is no longer working. We have built up an unprecedented prison population of over 2 million inmates, but most of these offenders are returning home each year with few skills or support to keep them from going back to lives of crime"

The survey was conducted Feb. 15-18, 2006, and included 1,039 respondents. The poll carries a margin of error of +/- 3.1 percentage points.

(c) Zogby International 

"The real crime's the Tories' take on sentencing" by Jeffry Simpson, Globe and Mail

The international and Canadian evidence is overwhelming against expanding mandatory minimum sentences. Numerous studies confirm it. Judges, prosecutors and academics know it. And yet, against this conclusive evidence, Canada's Conservative government proposes to ramp up their use. Canada already has 29 offences that carry mandatory minimum sentences (MMS). Nineteen were added to the Criminal Code in 1995, as part of a package of changes. Many were for firearms offences.

Now the Conservatives want to add new ones and lengthen existing ones. The reason has everything to do with politics, a political response to a media-inspired whipping up of concern about crime that defies the reality, easily demonstrated, that violent-crime rates across Canada have been going down for most of the past two decades.

The Conservatives, pandering to perception, want to get "tough on crime." So two stalwarts of this approach -- Justice Minister Vic Toews and Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day -- unveiled the government's policies yesterday, including the new mandatory minimum sentences for drug and firearms offences.

Where is the evidence to support what they propose? It exists in rhetoric, tabloid columnizing and the police associations. It does not exist in fact. If you doubt it, click on the websites of Mr. Toews's own department in Ottawa, the Rand Corp. or various university departments of criminology to understand what those who have studied MMS, as opposed to playing politics with it, have found.

Prof. Julian Roberts of Oxford University surveyed MMS in a range of countries. He concluded: "The studies that have examined the impact of these laws reported variable effects on prison populations, and no discernible effect on crime rates." Please note: "no discernible effect on crime rates. "

Prof. Thomas Gabor of the University of Ottawa and Nicole Crutcher of Carleton University conducted an exhaustive survey of world studies for the Justice Department in 2002. What counts, they found, in crime prevention is not the length of anticipated sentence but the likelihood of being caught. They wrote: "The research on both sentence certainty and severity are relevant to MMS and, on balance, the evidence suggests that severity may be less critical to deterrence than initiatives boosting the certainty of punishment."

A 2000 U.S. study revealed that states with above-average rates of incarceration experienced the most modest decreases in crime. Another U.S. study -- this one into firearms offences -- showed that enhanced sentences had no significant effect on gun homicide. The best that other U.S. studies showed was a possible improvement in homicide rates linked to MMS for firearms, but the evidence was inconclusive.

An Australian study, however, found gun robbers would continue to use firearms, even knowing that MMS existed for gun offences. As for drug offences, here's what the worldwide study by Gabor/Crutcher concluded: "Severe MMS seems to be least effective in relation to drug offences. . . . Drug consumption and drug-related crime seem to be unaffected, in any measurable way, by severe MMS."

A 1999 research report for the Department of the Solicitor-General, as it then was, concluded after surveying 50 studies involving 300,000 offenders, "longer sentences were not associated with reduced recidivism. In fact, the opposite was found. Longer sentences were associated with a 3-per-cent increase in recidivism."

Professors Anthony Doob and Carla Cersaroni of the Centre of Criminology of the University of Toronto asked plaintively in a 2001 essay: "Why are we still discussing whether Canada should have any minimum sentences?" They pointed out that the Canadian Sentencing Commission and the 1952 Royal Commission on the Revision of the Criminal Code had recommended against them.

We do know, therefore, that mandatory minimum sentences do not deter crime, thereby making societies safer. We also know, however, that they drive up the prison population, and make it much more likely there will be an increase in plea negotiations, lower conviction rates, and more charges either stayed, withdrawn or discharged. That's what all the studies have shown.

They have also shown that MMS falls most heavily on visible minorities whose members are overrepresented already in prisons -- such as blacks in the U.S. and aboriginals in Canada.

There isn't any evidence, therefore, in Canada or abroad that mandatory minimums deter crime. That the Harper government should be expanding them is yet another example of the triumph of focus-group-driven politics over evidence-based policy.

(c) Globe and Mail