Writing in The Irish Times, columnist Breda O'Brien takes a look at Irish penal policy (or, indeed, the lack of), and how "expanding jails instead of tackling social problems was a typical Celtic Tiger response."
She describes how the financial crisis has lead Minister Ahern to proposing something that should have happened a long time ago, viz. plans to make it mandatory for judges to consider Community Service Orders (CSOs) where sentences of up to six months would usually apply. This will save €17 million in direct prison costs, but will also save money indirectly through unpaid work which will benefit non-profit organisations, or clean up graffiti, or enhance the environment.
The successes of the Irish Youth Justice Service since 2005, which established that detention must be the last resort for young offenders, are recognised, along with the "great strides in community policing and diversion of young people away from crime" by the Gardai.
"Still, reform remains piecemeal, and there is no coherent vision driving our crime policy."
Pointing out the alarming rise in the numbers of people incarcerated - from 2,984 in 2000 to a predicted 6,000 next year - O'Brien points out that it is not policy to incarcerate more people, but "more like an unintended consequence of policies that were often knee-jerk responses to public disquiet."
"This has resulted in grossly overcrowded prisons. We then attempt to play catch-up by creating more prison places, but without ever having a debate about whether prison is the best option in the first place."
She questions why, given that detention is the last resort for young offenders, it is not the last resort for all offenders - pointing out that our prisons are filled with the disadvantaged.
O'Brien cites Liam Herrick's review of Dearbhail McDonald’s recent book, Bust: How the Courts have Exposed the Rotten Heart of the Irish Economy, in which some shocking cases are outlined.
Acknowledging the needs of victims, O'Brien suggests that rather than prioritising punishment, victims generally prefer a response that would lead to perpetrators not reoffending in the future - something that prison is not likely to achieve. Alternatives such as the restorative justice pilot schemes in Dublin and Nenagh are presented, through which the victim and offender are brought together to discuss the crime, and the impact on the victim.
"We need to get beyond the dichotomy of being perceived to be either tough on crime, and therefore in favour of more prison, or soft on crime, and in favour of less prison. It is not that simple, because prison does not help to reduce crime."
Focussing on the case for shifting resources from criminal justice to social justice, she writes:
"In relation to drugs, we need to look at the family dysfunction, poverty and lack of education that leads some people to substance abuse... not only do we not have a coherent crime policy, we fail again and again to see the links between social policy and crime policy. There is irrefutable evidence that the best way to reduce crime is to invest in children and teenagers, that every euro spent on family support and early education saves a fortune later on. Pre-school is a great deal cheaper than prison."
The article concludes:
"Building mega prisons such as Thornton Hall was a typical Celtic Tiger solution – throwing money at a problem to solve it. Now that we can no longer afford such foolishness, maybe we will see a process of genuine reform."