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The Whitaker Committee Report 20 Years On: Lessons Learned or Lessons Forgotten?

25th July 2007

A review of the findings of the 1985 Whitaker Committee Report in light of present-day debates on criminal justice and prisons in Ireland with eighteen contributions from the ranks of politics, academia, law, human rights, the community/voluntary sector and the Prison Service.

The full report can be download above.

The introduction by then Executive Director of IPRT, Rick Lines, follows below:

When it was published in 1985, the Report of the Committee of Inquiry into the Penal System represented the most detailed and thoughtful analysis of Irish prisons to date. Chaired by Dr T.K. Whitaker, the Committee was tasked with investigating all areas of the penal system, including staffing and management, policy and legislation and prison regimes, facilities and conditions. The Whitaker Report’s enlightened recommendations – now more than twenty years old – remain important for decision-makers today.

The Committee’s conclusions challenged – and indeed continue to challenge – the cosy consensus among the press and politicians about the nature of prison, and its role in the criminal justice system.
As such, the Report brought welcome relief from the sensationalism that too often drives criminal justice policy and legislation in Ireland. The Committee examined the typical rationales for incarceration, finding there to be little evidence to justify them.

Whitaker and his colleagues concluded it was “difficult to find convincing proof that imprisonment operates as a major or universal deterrent” to crime, and found incarceration a poor crime prevention strategy, noting that any such effect is “a temporary one since it lapses on the prisoner’s release”. While supporting the concept of rehabilitative programmes, the Committee concluded that “imprisonment cannot be justified merely on the grounds that it can be used to reform and rehabilitate”.

While prison was found to offer little in terms of positive outcomes, Whitaker and his colleagues did conclude that incarceration was “an expensive sanction”. Noting an annual cost of £29,000 to incarcerate one person, the Committee concluded that “if imprisonment punishes, and often harms, the prisoner and his family, it punishes the taxpayer also”.

This balancing of the benefits versus the costs of incarceration led the Committee to conclude that prison “should only be employed as a last resort. The principle should be that sentences of imprisonment are imposed only if the offence is such that no other form of penalty is appropriate”. Instead of ever growing prison populations, the Committee advised the expansion of non-custodial forms of punishment, reparation and restitution to victims and other forms of community sanctions.

Unfortunately, much of the Committee’s analysis fell upon deaf ears, both in the Government of the day and certainly of those subsequently. At a time when Ireland was experiencing unprecedented levels of crime, the Whitaker Committee – mindful of the costs and limitations of incarceration as a response – recommended capping the number of prison places at 1,500. Today, Ireland has over 3,000 prisoners, and if current Government plans to build two new super-prisons at Thornton Hall, Co Dublin and in Co Cork come to fruition, we will have a prison population nearly three times that judged a sensible maximum by the Whitaker Committee. This in a context where, according to the Prison Service’s own figures for 2005, 85% of total committals were for non-violent offences, 78% of all committals were for sentences of one year or less and the annual cost of a single prison place exceeded €90,000.

While the Government and elements of the media continue to insist that this race to incarcerate reflects public demand, recent public opinion research commissioned by the Irish Penal Reform Trust exposes the fallacy of this position. The poll, conducted in January 2007 by TNS/MRBI, clearly shows that the majority of voters would prefer to see non-violent offenders dealt with through programmes and sanctions other than incarceration. This reveals broad public support for the Whitaker Committee’s central recommendation to expand the use of alternatives to custody as a way to decrease unnecessary reliance on expensive prison places. The findings of this poll, included as an appendix to this volume, clearly illustrate that the public has a much more sophisticated and nuanced understanding of crime and punishment than it is often given credit for, and recognises the limitations of prison as a response.

We will see whether the political parties have the courage to follow the lead of their constituents in this regard.