Eamon Gilmore has characterised the McCarthy report as appearing to place a “price on everything, and a value on nothing”. As the country continues to digest the McCarthy report, the limitations of the report’s approach are certainly becoming more and more apparent. The report has contributed greatly to our understanding of how the public sector spends; what seems to be missing, however, is a broader analysis of what the public sector is meant to achieve. If we are really concerned about a more efficient public service in the longer term, then the starting point must be to identify the key priorities of government and then work out how these can be achieved more cheaply.
One key political priority that we can all agree on is the need to reduce crime and to build a safer society. Not only is this a social imperative because of the impact of crime on victims; crime also has huge and measurable economic costs. In this context, McCarthy concludes, correctly, that the replacement of Mountjoy and Cork prisons with modern facilities could create long-term efficiencies. Remarkably, however, the report makes no comment on the fact that the plans as currently conceived for Thornton Hall and Kilworth would also see a dramatic expansion of the prison population by somewhere between 700 and 1,500 prisoners. All this in a system currently costing €100,000 per prisoner per year and which has reoffending rates of over 40%.
More importantly, the report fails to take into account that crime is an area of social policy that cannot be seen in isolation. An understanding of social spending in its totality will disclose that reducing crime rates at its causes is much cheaper than treating the symptoms through imprisonment. Even in the United States, the world’s biggest gaoler, it is now accepted that dollars spent on early interventions in high risk communities save multiple amounts down the line. For example, a recent study in Washington State has shown that spending $2,400 in supports and interventions for the families of young offenders can save the taxpayer almost $50,000 in the longer term by reducing reoffending among that group. In the same way, investing just $600 in providing early childhood education to the most disadvantaged communities saves society on average $15,000 per child in lower future crime rates.
In Ireland, we know that our prison population is made up in significant part by young people who slip through the cracks of our care system, our education system and our mental health services and who come largely from a small number of extremely poor urban communities where economic policies has failed. One does not need a PhD in economics to foresee that cuts in resources to high risk groups will have an impact on future crime rates with knock-on effects for future justice budgets. Of course, we will always have crime and we are not so naive as to think that all or even most crime is preventable, but a more sophisticated economic approach to crime is possible.
In balancing the books for 2009, we need to plan for a society that will be a going concern for some time into the future and in the coming months IPRT will be working with a community organisations to demonstrate how small expenditures now in supporting vulnerable communities can reap large financial and social dividends in the future. From that perspective, starving communities of resources at a time of crisis could well mean storing up much larger social and economic liabilities for future generations. Surely a false economy?