Original article by Cormac O'Keeffe appeared in the Irish Examiner on 23rd September, 2010.
Penal reform and children’s groups are calling for a shift from criminal justice to social justice, claiming that "modest investments" in under-resourced communities would have greater positive benefits in reducing offending, as well as wider social benefits.
The groups point out that the number of people in prison had doubled from 2,180 in 1990 to 4,491 in 2010, with the prison population rising by 10% a year.
The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT), Barnardos and the Irish Association of Young People in Care (IAYPIC) said the annual budget for the Irish Prison Service was €374 million in 2009 and that the average cost of a year in prison was around €77,000 per person.
In contrast, the Probation Service, which operates non-custodial penalties for offenders, had a budget of €52m in 2009.
The groups called on the Government to commit to diverting a proportion of the justice budget to interventions that address the causes of social inclusion, including education, health, mental health and substance misuse.
The bodies will present their case today at a day-long conference, entitled Shifting Focus: From Criminal Justice to Social Justice, organised by the IPRT.
One of the speakers, Dr Paul O’Mahony of Trinity College Dublin, says in his paper that "relentlessly hardline" criminal justice politics had led to a toughening up of sentencing, criminal procedures and conditions in prison.
"Almost 60% of all prisoners now share cells intended for single occupancy. Many still have to slop out their night waste; many are locked up for most of the day and night; and many have no meaningful occupation.
"This has happened, despite the 1994 Government commitment to ending slopping out and overcrowding by 2000."
The criminologist points out that an open centre for juveniles was closed and that one facility that had "real design and regime merits," the Dochas Centre for women, had been allowed to "seriously deteriorate" as a rehabilitative environment.
"In effect, the penal system has become a socially unjust, vicious cycle, in which poor treatment of offenders produces more alienated and ruthless offenders, whose very existence is then taken to justify ever more punitive treatment of offenders.
"For whatever reason, but probably because of fear of rejection by the electorate, Irish politicians usually fail to shift their focus from the micro level of individual crime and the emotional response it evokes to the macro level of crime in general and the societal influences on it.
"This failure is perhaps understandable at the level of the individual politician but at the level of the political party it is clearly culpable and serious."