An excellent and timely editorial in today's Irish Times asks, against the background of cuts in child benefit and dole payments, "what political madness is driving this Government to spend €100,000 a year keeping minor offenders in grossly overcrowded prisons?" Whether looked at from the pragmatic or humanitarian perspective, "it is an indictment of skewed values."
The editorial looks to the "prison works" notion in both the United States and Britain, which was found to be popular with the electorate, but which is now widely recognised to have failed. "Here, a “zero tolerance” policy helped to win a general election and led to gross overcrowding and an expanded building programme."
The editorial refers to high reoffending rates - in fact, IPRT would set the figure at 60% (based on the analaysis of O'Donnell et al) rather than the 40% reported - and makes clear the obvious (which is generally missed by the 'prison works' brigade) that this means that "the more people you send to jail, the higher the prison population will become."
"Experts have recommended that prison should become a punishment of last resort."
The editorial goes on to detail recent reports which have been strongly critical of prison conditions with particular emphasis on overcrowding, and concerns for the welfare of the mentally vulnerable: "Basic safety precautions are not being observed for prisoners in danger of self-harm. A doubling-up of inmates in single cells threatens good mental health and facilitates bullying and abuse."
"These are direct consequences of a “politicisation” of the criminal justice system that fails to address the underlying issues of crime and its prevention. Rather than spend €100,000 a year locking up a young offender, devoting part of that money to his early education and welfare might transform his life."
Overcrowding in prisons must be reduced as a first step, and solutions are proposed: Alternative punishments for minor offences and increased remission for good behaviour (from 25 to 50%, as in Britain) is suggested.
"Current sentencing and prison policies are enormously expensive and seriously flawed. They require fundamental change."
Read The Irish Times editorial in full.