IPRT - Irish Penal Reform Trust

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Ebulletin #44

19th June 2007

VOICES RISING - Volume 5, Numbers 3/4/5

NEW POLL: Majority of voters prefer non-custodial programmes over prison for most offenders

A new poll released today shows that a majority of voters across all political parties would prefer to see most offenders each year diverted away from prison and into non-custodial programmes that address the root causes of their offending and/or supervise them in the community.

The TNS/MRBI poll commissioned by the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) interviewed a nationally representative sample of 1,000 adults during January 2007 in order to gauge public opinion on a range of issues related to the prison system.

The poll reveals that when given a choice of how to deal with non-violent offenders - who make up over 80% of committals to prisons in Ireland each year - respondents preferred to divert them away from prison and into drug treatment programmes, mental health programmes or sentence them to community service.  Prison sentences were a less preferred option, and received similar support as other non-custodial options such as reparation to victims and community supervision by the Probation Service.

The poll also reveals that by wide margins, voters of all political parties question the use of prisons as the best way to deal with crime.

The poll found that:

  • 91% of respondents believe that offenders with mental illness should be treated in a mental health facility instead of being sent to prison.
  • 81% believe that offenders with a drug addiction should be placed in drug recovery programmes instead of serving a prison sentence.
  • 74% are in favour of using alternatives to prison when dealing with young offenders.  
  • 66% of respondents believe that people come out of prison worse than they go in .
  • 54% disagree with the statement that 'increasing prison numbers will reduce crime'.
  • 44% agree that criminalising drug use causes more problems than it prevents.  Only 28% disagreed.
"This research shows clearly that the Irish electorate has a much more sophisticated understanding of crime and punishment issues than they are given credit for by the main political parties or by much of the media," said IPRT Executive Director Rick Lines.  "It also shows that public concern about crime in no way translates into widespread demand for the types of knee-jerk 'get tough' policies being peddled by the Government and main Opposition parties in the run up to the election."

"In fact just the opposite is the case. By wide margins, voters of all political persuasions see prison as a failed response to dealing with most crime, do not prioritise building additional prison spaces as a strategy to tackle crime and, when given a choice, would prefer to see non-violent offenders, who constitute the vast majority of committals each year, diverted out of prisons altogether and into non-custodial programmes and supervision that engage the root causes of the offending or make reparations to victims," he said.

Said Mr. Lines, "Politicians often claim that their calls for ever harsher penalties and ever bigger prisons are based upon public demand for such measures.  This research exposes the fallacy of that position.  In fact, the political parties are not responding to either public demand, or indeed the demands of their own voters, in the current rush to incarcerate."

"A majority of voters are not only supportive of expanded non-custodial and treatment options for dealing with crime, they actually prefer them as a strategy to deal with most people committed to prison each year.  It remains to be seen whether the political parties will have the courage to catch up to the electorate in this regard."


Summary of IPRT Poll Results



Preferred Initiatives to Tackle Crime

When asked which initiative they would most like to see implemented to tackle crime given a budget of €10 million, approaching 4 in 10 (37%) adults would opt for additional Gardaí.  This was followed at some remove by youth workers to work with children (17%) and additional drug treatment places (15%).  Only 5% chose building additional prison places as their preferred response to tackling crime.

Preferred Measures For Non-Violent Offenders

The preferred options for non-violent offenders are drug treatment for offenders with drug problems (41%), community service (39%) and mental health treatment for offenders with mental health problems (34%).

Opinions Of The Penal System
Those who participated in the research agreed almost universally that mentally ill offenders should be treated in a mental health facility instead of being sent to prison (91%).  Whilst 8 in 10 agreed that offenders with a drug addiction should be placed in drug recovery programmes instead of serving a prison sentence (81%).

Most respondents agreed that more people come out of prison worse than they go in (66%).  

The majority (54%) disagreed with the statement 'increasing prison numbers will reduce crime'.

Just over 4 in 10 (44%) agreed that criminalising drug use causes more problems than it prevents, while 28% disagreed.  Interestingly, the question of whether or not criminalising drug use causes more problems than it prevents attracted the highest level of uncertainty with 19% answering 'neither agree nor disagree' and a further 9% answering 'don't know'.

Youth Offenders
Three quarters (74%) of those interviewed were in favour of using alternatives to prison when dealing with young offenders.  

Perceived Proportion Of Violent Offenders Committed To Prison

There is widespread misconception amongst the public regarding the proportion of prisoners who served a sentence for a violent offence in 2005.  Figures from the Irish Prison Service Annual Report 2005 show that 15% of prisoners were convicted of a Group 1 or Group 2 offence.

However, the research findings show 69% of respondents overestimated the proportion of prisoners sentenced for violent offences, compared to just 4% who underestimated the proportion.




Prison Drugs Policy goes to the Dogs

   

The IPRT has rubbished the "drug free prison" strategy detailed in May by former Minister for Justice, Michael McDowell, noting that under the plan sniffer dogs will outnumber new drug treatment counsellors by almost 50%.

In a speech at the Prison Officers' Association's annual conference, the Mr. McDowell announced the purchase of 32 drug sniffing dogs as part of the Government's plan to create so-called "heroin-free prisons". In April, the Irish Prison Service announced plans to appoint 24 drug counsellors, meaning that more dogs will be appointed than treatment counsellors under the Government's new drug strategy.

"The Government has stated that their so-called drug free prisons plan includes a commitment to rehabilitation and counselling," said IPRT Executive Director Rick Lines.  "Yet their decision to appoint more dogs than drug counsellors shows their obsession with appearing 'tough on drugs'  leaves treatment and rehabilitation services the poor cousin to headline-grabbing gimmickry."

The IPRT notes that as many as half of Irish prisoners have a history of illegal drug use, a figure that does not include the use of alcohol, and doubts that the new counselling team will meet the current need. "We have to remember that these new counsellors are not adding additional capacity to a fully staffed treatment and rehabilitation service," said Mr Lines.  "Rather they are coming into a counselling service described as 'non-existent' by the National Prison Chaplain's Association only two years ago."

The IPRT notes the Government's plan will establish a corps of 135 specialised officers to handle the sniffer dogs, more than five times the number of new drug counsellors to be appointed.  

"The fact that the Prison Service will appoint five times as many staff to attend to the needs of 30 dogs as it will to meet the needs of 3,000 prisoners shows the cynical nature of the Government's approach to the drugs issue," said Mr Lines. "Any Government that appoints dogs faster and in greater numbers than addiction and rehabilitation counsellors is not making a serious attempt to address the issue of drug use in prisons, or re-offending by people with problem drug or alcohol use."

In the speech to the POA conference, Mr. McDowell further reiterated the plan to institute mandatory drug testing of prisoners, despite the lack of evidence that such programmes reduce drug use.  In 2005, the Scottish Prison Service announced plans to cancel its mandatory drug testing programme after ten years, noting that its failure to produce the intended results meant that money could better be spent in more effective areas of drug services such as treatment.
  
"In April the IPRT published the findings of a TNS/MRBI poll showing that 81% of respondents believe that offenders with a drug addiction should be placed in drug recovery programmes instead of serving a prison sentence.  This clearly shows the widespread public support for an approach to drug use in which treatment rather than punishment is the central feature," said Mr Lines. "Yet from sniffer dogs to mandatory testing to CCTV, the Government has time and time again demonstrated an approach to prison drug use more in common with Inspector Gadget than international best practice."

IPRT speaks at conference in Warsaw

On May 15, IPRT Executive Director Rick Lines spoke at the 18th International Conference on the Reduction of Drug-Related Harm, held in Warsaw.  Mr. Lines gave a presentation on the Human Rights panel on the use of the death penalty for drug offences internationally, arguing that such executions are in violation of international human rights law.

"Jail not answer for addicts, poll finds" by Dearbhail McDonald, Irish Independent

Criminals with a drug addiction should be placed in drug recovery programmes instead of being sent to prison.

And offenders with mental illnesses should be treated in mental health facilities instead of being locked up by the State.

A pre-election poll on the use of prisons to tackle crime has revealed that the majority of voters believe that non-violent offenders - who make up over 80pc of committals to prison in Ireland each year - should be diverted into non custodial programmes instead of being sent to prison.

Two-thirds of people interviewed as part of a TNS/MRBI poll, commissioned by the Irish Penal Reform Trust, said that more people come out of prison worse than when they go in.

In a resounding strike against the Government's "get tough" stance on crime, 74pc of those polled said that they are in favour of using alternatives to prisons such as community sentences, probation and reparation to victims, when dealing with young offenders.

More than half rejected the notion that increasing prison numbers, a key part of the government's election strategy on criminal justice reform, will significantly reduce crime rates.

"This research shows clearly that the Irish electorate has a much more sophisticated understanding of crime and punishment issues than they are given credit for by the main political parties or by much of the media," said IPRT Executive Director Rick Lines.

"It also shows that public concern about crime in no way translates into widespread demand for the types of knee-jerk 'get tough' policies being peddled by the Government and main Opposition parties in the run up to the election."

"Politicians often claim that their calls for ever harsher penalties and ever bigger prisons are based upon public demand for such measures. This research exposes the fallacy of that position. The political parties are not responding to either public demand, or indeed the demands of their own voters."

© Irish Independent

"Hidden costs of locking people up" by Jamie Doward and Denis Campbell, The Observer

The government's prisons policy is under attack this weekend as two influential reports warn that taxpayers are paying a high price for a penal system that isn't working.

Research by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, which will be published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation next month, suggests that the true cost of Britain's burgeoning prison population is much higher than official figures suggest.

The study says that once additional public costs - such as foster care for prisoners' children and income support - are factored in, the cost of imprisoning for a year soars by nearly a third, to almost £50,000.

Meanwhile, the Institute for Public Policy Research claims that 12,000 people have been imprisoned who would be better dealt with outside prison. The IPPR argues that prison is an 'expensive and ineffective way of warehousing social problems', and that it is no coincidence Britain tops the incarceration league in western Europe, with 67 per cent of prisoners caught reoffending within two years of release.

'Prison should be used far less in Britain, but to greater effect,' said Nick Pearce, IPPR director. 'If more drug and mental health treatment was provided outside prisons and women sentenced to less than six months were given community sentences, we could stabilise our prison population to 10 per cent lower than it is today.'

When Labour came to power, the prison population stood at some 60,000. It is now more than 80,000 and the government has pledged to create a further 8,000 places.

But Roger Grimshaw, director of research at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies at King's College, said the government was failing to acknowledge the hidden costs of imprisonment on the taxpayer.

'Imprisonment does more than punish the prisoner: our research found that it also has disruptive and impoverishing effects on families,' Grimshaw said. 'Benefit claims are interrupted, partners lose work and find it hard to get back into employment when looking after the children, who often miss the prisoner acutely. Families end up paying for prisoners' clothing, and prison visiting costs exceed the compensation available.'

Overall, the Joseph Rowntree study found the taxpayer was 'subsidising' the average family of a prisoner to the tune of £10,000 a year. Of this, 51 per cent was borne by social services, with most of the remainder coming from other public agencies.

The study also calculated that the average personal cost to the family of a jailed offender came to £175 per month. The study suggests that, if these hidden costs were included, the total cost to the taxpayer of imprisoning an offender would be £49,220 - 31 per cent more than official figures.

'We found that imprisonment imposes hidden costs on families and services,' Grimshaw said. 'Families who can least afford it pay part of the cost of imprisonment, and social services, along with the health service, absorb other costs to the public purse.'

(c) The Observer 

"More jails will not solve overcrowding crisis, warns Woolf" by Alan Travis, The Guardian

The former lord chief justice, Lord Woolf, yesterday warned that building more prisons would not solve Britain's jail crisis.

The judge, who headed the inquiry into the Strangeways prison riots 15 years ago, predicted that building more prison places would prove a hugely expensive short-term answer as they would quickly be filled and the "cancer" of overcrowding in the system would continue.

The home secretary, John Reid, has promised to build an extra 10,000 prison places in the face of a record prison population of 80,000 in England and Wales and prisoners held in emergency police and court cells at a cost of £5m a month.

Lord Woolf said there were also concerns among judges that the transfer of responsibility for prisons to the new Ministry for Justice from May 9 will mean court budgets will be squeezed to pay for the escalating costs of dealing with prison overcrowding. He told MPs on the Commons home affairs select committee that he learned during the Strangeways inquiry that "overcrowding was a cancer eating away at the heart of the prison service". The cancer had persisted and was reflected in poor reconviction rates of those leaving prison, putting the public at risk.

Lord Woolf said prison places were so expensive that they needed to be reserved only for those who "really deserve and need it". He suggested that the Sentencing Guidelines Council should be told by the government how much money was available for prisons for the next five years and asked to draw up guidelines that keep the prison population within those resources.He said: "The judge should know how much the sentence he is imposing will cost the public, and if there is a suitable cheaper option then he should choose that. We have not got over the message just how expensive incarceration is. The cost of sentences should be set out in clear and realistic terms." Lord Woolf, who sat as a judge in the criminal courts for 25 years, acknowledged that the confidence of judges and magistrates in community punishments had deteriorated, partly because of an overstretched probation service. He accepted that violent crime had to be dealt with severely, and denied that he was as "out of touch" as some tabloid newspaper editors had claimed.

Lord Woolf reminded MPs that he had suffered his own home being burgled and he and his wife had been mugging victims while they were abroad. But he said the competition between the political parties over who was the toughest on crime had fuelled a more punitive attitude amongst the public towards crime.

(c) The Guardian