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Guest Blog: In praise of U.S. levels of incarceration?

11th September 2012

In this guest blog, Gillian Smith responds to some of the arguments and counter-arguments raised during a week-long series of articles ‘Crime Statistics Ireland’ published in The Irish Times, August 2012.

In a week where Chief Reporter Carl O’Brien and Crime Correspondent Conor Lally illustrated so well the intricate relationship between childhood, parenting, education, geographical inequality, youth detention and criminal activity, the contribution of Economics Editor Dan O’Brien to The Irish Times’ ‘Crime Statistics Ireland’ series – ‘Poverty and inequality not key reasons for law breaking’ (24th August, 2012) – felt somewhat regressive.

Under the premise of casting an economic eye on crime causation, O’Brien offers New York City’s safety (despite high income inequality), India’s low homicide rate (despite its poverty), and rising crime rates alongside post-World War Two prosperity as evidence to debunk “the notion that recession, poverty and inequality make people break laws”. Noting the 45% increase in prison committals in Ireland that coincided with falling crime rates in the four years until 2011, O’Brien claims “it is hard to avoid the conclusion that greater resort to custodial sentencing, which remains low by international standards, has cut crime rates”.

Beware assumptions of a significant causal relationship between crime and prison, alongside praise of America’s use of incarceration.

Firstly, at a European level, Ireland is by no means a low imprisonment country. Ireland imprisons 100 people per 100,000 national population; this is a higher rate than Germany, France, Northern Ireland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland. Professor Ian O’Donnell pointed out recently that in 1999, Ireland’s imprisonment rate was 20% below the EU-15 average. Now, we are average, with the highest percentage imprisonment rate increase of all EU-15 countries (54%) in the past twelve years.

Secondly, the relationship between prison and crime is far from straightforward. Criminologists Ian O’Donnell and Eoin O’Sullivan studied the fall in recorded crime in Ireland between 1995 and 1999, and found that the 21 per cent decline would have occurred even if prison populations had remained static. Rising prison populations did not explain the fall in crime. International research suggests a similarly marginal relationship; some British criminologists argue that a 25 per cent increase in prison populations will produce a one per cent drop in crime.  Since 2001, all of the nineteen American states that have managed to lower their imprisonment rates have seen a fall in their crime rate. New York City’s infamous crime reduction took place without massive expansion in the use of incarceration, maintaining below-national average use of imprisonment.

O’Brien maintains that imprisonment works due to incapacitation effects, rather than rehabilitation or deterrence. Indeed, Irish research does reveal low levels of deterrence of custodial sanctions, with almost half of all prisoners released between 2001 and 2004 being re-imprisoned within four years. The likelihood of imprisonment is almost twice as high for someone who has already served time in prison than for those with no previous prison experience, which suggests that prison in fact worsens offenders’ risk of re-offending.

Recent increases in the use of imprisonment in Ireland largely comprise short sentences (three months or less) for non-violent crimes such as Road Traffic and Public Order offences. Almost two thirds of all committals to prison last year were for short sentences, which have more than doubled over the past four years (from 3,526 in 2008 to 8,070 in 2011). During the same period, we saw a 198% increase in the numbers of committals to prison for non-payment of court ordered fines, the vast majority (85%) of whom will be re-imprisoned within four years. Incapacitating thousands of non-violent offenders for short periods of time is wasteful, ineffective and harmful.

Thirdly, O’Brien refers to falling crime in America and rising crime in Europe as a ”reversal of misfortune”, without warning of the many social and economic burdens of American incarceration: The U.S. has the highest imprisonment rate in the world (743 prisoners per 100,000 national population), before Rwanda (595) and Russia (568). According the Pew Center on the States, one in 2.3 American prisoners returns to prison within 3 years, testimony to the diminishing returns of prison beyond a certain point.  Many States, such as California, are spending almost as much on prisons as they are on higher education. Huge racial disparities exist within the 2.2 million incarcerated. Over a lifetime, African Americans are 29 per cent likely to spend time in prison, compared to just 4 per cent for white Americans. One in nine African American children has a parent who is in prison, compared to one in fifty-seven for white children.

Meanwhile, the U.S.’s neighbour Canada has a fraction of their imprisonment rate, at 117 prisoners per 100,000 population. Canada and the United States witnessed similar rising crime rates from the 1960s onwards, and subsequent dramatic declines since the 1990s. Canada, however, has managed to maintain stable and comparatively low levels of imprisonment during both upward and downward crime trends.

The growth of American imprisonment rates [the prison population increased seven-fold over the thirty years from 1970] resulted from punitive penal policies such as truth-in-sentencing, ‘three strikes’ laws, mandatory drugs sentences, and life sentences without the possibility of parole. Canada’s homicide rate is nearly three times lower than America’s. The United Nations’ 2011 Global Study on Homicide found that countries with higher income inequality have homicide rates almost four times that of more equal countries. (Although growing, Canada’s post tax and transfer income inequality is 17% lower than in the U.S.) Differences in income inequality are also said to explain the variation in homicide rates across the U.S.

Earlier in the Irish Times’ series, social justice campaigner Fr Peter McVerry had urged for more balanced framing of dialogue about crime, away from ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentalities. Yet, Dan O’Brien’s use of language at times sounds archaic and polarising (“More sobriety leads to less delinquency… [...] …prison is not effective in rehabilitating the villainous”). Overlooking socioeconomic causes of crime can reproduce a destructive ‘criminal class’ narrative: the idea that certain people or groups are simply prone to criminal behaviour. For example, denying that structural biases have contributed to the racial disparities in the U.S. prison system lends support to the reproduction of negative stereotypes.

The poor and disadvantaged are greatly over-represented in our prisons. Paul O’Mahony’s oft-cited 1997 study of prisoners in Mountjoy revealed that four out of five had left school before the age of 15, one in three grew up in a household where no parent was in employment, and 37% had lost a parent by the time they were 15 years old. Prisoners in Ireland are 25 times more likely to come from and return to areas of serious deprivation, and the majority are unemployed upon committal to prison. Some criminologists maintain that prison is in itself criminogenic, such are the barriers to reintegration following time in custody.

Speaking at the Irish Penal Reform Trust Annual Lecture in 2011, Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence Alan Shatter agreed: “sending offenders to prison without tackling the underlying social conditions of their criminality – the lack of skills, education, and employment – while they are in prison only serves to reinforce the cycle of criminality.”

Given the marginal impact that prison has on crime, the high rates of prisoner re-offending, and the huge costs and harm associated with incarceration, what sense does it make to call for even more?

Gillian Smith is currently studying Sociology and Social Policy at Trinity college, Dublin. She worked as in intern with IPRT for July and August 2012.

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