The Irish Penal Reform Trust has today criticised Minister Michael McDowell's plans for massive prison expansion and the introduction on mandatory minimum sentencing, calling these initiatives "recycled U.S. policy failures of 20 years ago".
Last night, the Minister announced that his Department would embark on a massive prison building campaign that would see Ireland's prison population increase by one-third, including new 1000 and 800 bed facilities in Dublin and Cork, respectively. The Minister also announced that he would seek to limit judicial discretion in sentencing, and increase the use of mandatory minimum sentences for certain categories of convictions.
"Minister McDowell came into office promising to reform and modernise the system," said IPRT Executive Director, Rick Lines. "His track record to date has shown this promise to be empty. Rather than demonstrating a coherent and progressive vision for criminal justice reform - based on international evidence and best practice - the Minister has instead leapt from crisis to crisis, creating prison policy along the way to meet short term political objectives rather the needs of Irish society in the 21st century."
Mr. Lines called on the Minister to provide evidence that mandatory minimum sentencing has been an effective strategy for reducing crime or drug use. "The evidence from the United States has shown mandatory minimum sentencing to be a dramatic failure at reducing crime and drug use, yet a dramatic success in filling prisons at great financial and social cost to society at large. Is this history of failure really the Minister's vision for future Irish justice policy?"
Mr. Lines noted that even the conservative U.S. Rand Corporation think-tank concluded in 1997, "Mandatory minimum sentences are not justifiable on the basis of cost effectiveness at reducing [drug] consumption or drug-related crime." Many U.S. states are now moving to repeal mandatory minimum sentencing laws in the face of the mounting evidence of failure, and mounting cost of expanding prison populations that have resulted from their enactment.
"The Irish criminal justice system - including the Prison Service - is in need of fundamental reform, of that there is no doubt. The fact that the best the Government has to offer is the recycled U.S. policy failures of 20 years ago speaks volumes about their lack of coherent vision to meet those challenges, as well as their willingness to place ideology before evidence. Electioneering before effectiveness."