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The Irish Times: Prison should be last resort for all categories of offender

13th February 2012

Despite wide recognition that Ireland’s system of punishment impacts disproportionately on socially excluded communities, law and policy continue to exacerbate the inequalities that increase the risk of crime rather than contributing to the building of safer and more resilient communities, writes Liam Herrick in The Irish Times.

He goes on to outline how there are a number of specific ways in which the criminal law is unduly focused on marginalised groups and those living in poverty, including laws prohibiting vagrancy and begging, and the continuing practice of imprisonment for non-payment of debt and non-payment of court-ordered fines.

Policing also comes under the microscope, identifying that disadvantaged communities are often more heavily policed, which can result in higher levels of crime detection than in more privileged communities, and ultimately, greater rates of conviction.

The article also focuses on unequal responses to crime, which sees offenders convicted of crimes traditionally associated with disadvantage (including theft, burglary) far more likely to receive custodial sentences than those who have committed so-called 'white-collar' crimes:

"The criminal law should treat all transgressors in an equitable manner. While there is understandable public demand for a more punitive response to the crimes of the wealthy, we might also ask why there is not greater questioning of the utility of prison as a response to the less serious offending of the poor.

"Imprisonment is damaging to all people – not just those who are educated and empowered – and therefore should be the measure of last resort for all categories of offender, and not just those who come from more privileged sections of society."

The opinion piece then outlines the need for services and supports to assist reintegration back into the community post-imprisonment as a critical step in breaking inter-generational cycles of crime, poverty, homelessness and imprisonment. However, ultimately, the most cost-effective response to crime is to invest in early intervention strategies to combat social and educational disadvantage and prevent vulnerable young people embarking on criminality in the first place.

Read the opinion piece in full here.

The Vicious Circle of Social Exclusion and Crime: Ireland's Disproportionate Punishment of the Poor is available here.

Learn more