IPRT - Irish Penal Reform Trust

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

5th April 2007

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.