Fianna Fáil launched their election manifesto, 'An Ireland for All', on Thursday 11th February 2016. The manifesto can be accessed here. Below, IPRT analyses relevant proposals in the 'Tackle crime & develop community services' section.
IPRT broadly welcomes the connection that is made between tackling crime and the need to invest in community services, including Fianna Fáil's commitments to address "ingrained social problems such as serious drug abuse and cycles of disadvantage [through] community-level intervention".
IPRT also welcomes proposals that focus on crime prevention. Criminal justice resources are more effectively spent on increasing community policing, for example, than on expanding prisons or prison populations.
However, IPRT is concerned about what are regressive proposals to expand mandatory sentencing regimes. IPRT notes that Fianna Fáil has not costed the impact of these proposals, which would likely result in a dramatic increase in the prison population. Currently, a prison space costs approx. €70,000 per person per annum. A significant increase in the prison population would have other financial implications too, including capital investment.
For more information on how political decisions impact on the penal system, see here.
(v) Toughen sentences and measures to stop repeat burglars
Evidence that longer sentences act as a real deterrent is scant. The risk of being caught and of being dealt with swiftly by the criminal justice system has demonstrated to be a stronger deterrent than length of sentence.
At the same time, repeat offending must be addressed. High reoffending rates by those imprisoned for burglary offences (CSO 2016) strongly suggest that longer custodial sentences will not reduce reoffending. The same statistics reveal high rates of burglary offending committed post-release by people who had initially been imprisoned for other offences.
Instead, IPRT advocates for evidence-informed and effective responses to repeat offending, including joint agency initiatives, such as J-ARC and restorative justice strategies. It is also crucial that accurate and comprehensive crime data is regularly made available to the public in order to assess the accuracy of claims by media or others about “surges in crime”.
Specific proposed measures include:
IPRT is completely opposed to mandatory sentencing regimes as a measure to reduce crime, a position which is supported by independent reviews conducted by the Law Reform Commission and the Strategic Review on Penal Policy.
It is IPRT’s clear position that mandatory sentencing regimes are regressive, ineffective, and extremely costly to society and State. Mandatory sentencing introduced for drugs and firearms offences in the late 1990s contributed to a seriously overcrowded, dangerous, and expensive prison system from 2007-2011.
For more detail on IPRT's position on mandatory sentencing and the evidence which informs it, see here.
IPRT believes there may be merit in electronic tagging of accused persons as an alternative to detention on remand, provided certain safeguards are in place.
For more detail on IPRT's position on electronic tagging as an alternative to remand, see here.
(vi) Establish a new sentencing council to ensure consistent sentences
Experience from England and Wales supports Fianna Fáil’s proposal that a sentencing council may bolster public confidence in the operation of the justice system.
Regular collation and publication of sentencing data would also allow the public to assess whether inconsistent or lenient sentencing practice does, in fact, exist in Ireland. (Research by the Chief Justice’s Office suggests it does not.) IPRT believes that support of projects such as the Irish Sentencing Project is crucial in this regard. Instead of responding to individual cases reported in the media, it is crucial that policy and legislation are based on analysis of real data and facts.
For evidence to support proposals for sentencing guidelines, see here.
(vii) Enforce mandatory sentences on assaults on older people and emergency workers
IPRT agrees with Fianna Fáil that attacks on vulnerable people, including the old and the young, are particularly heinous. However, it is crucial that demands for strong criminal justice responses and appropriate punishment of serious crimes is separated from proposals for mandatory sentencing. Mandatory sentencing is a blunt instrument that removes discretion from judges, and inevitably creates an unjust system.
(viii) Crack down on knife crime
Knife crime must be addressed. However, proposals to introduce a mandatory minimum 12-month sentence for the carrying of a knife in public is a blunt instrument that is likely to result in the imprisonment of vulnerable people. Ireland has seen these approaches fail before: the introduction of mandatory sentencing for drugs in the late 1990s resulted in long-term imprisonment of low level players only at significant expense to the country.
Instead of reactive populist proposals, Ireland should look to other jurisdictions for approaches that have been proven to reduce knife crime - tough and innovative programmes in Glasgow, for example, have addressed knife fighting and gang crime, and halved the murder rate.
(ix) Retain and expand the Special Criminal Court
IPRT does not have a position on the Special Criminal Court but notes that in its most recent Concluding Observations on Ireland under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (July 2014) the UN Human Rights Committee expressed concern at the continuing operation and expansion of the remit of the Special Criminal Court.
(x) Introduce a new Community Court structure
IPRT supports Fianna Fáil’s proposal for community courts, and welcomes the progress towards the establishment of community courts achieved under the current Government.
For more detail on IPRT's position on community sanctions and alternatives to prison, see here.
(xi) Introduce a new Victim’s Law and surcharge
IPRT agrees with Fianna Fáil that victims are currently ill-served by the Irish criminal justice system, and support commitments to implementation of the EU Victims Directive.
However, proposals to introduce a victim’s surcharge may be problematic. The commodification of crime and punishment, including attaching a monetary value to the harm caused to an individual victim, is inherently difficult.
Additionally, such proposals will impact disproportionately on poor and marginalised communities, who may lack the financial resources to pay such charges, further compounding cycles of disadvantage and prison.
It is worth noting here that Ireland has been struggling to address rocketing numbers of people imprisoned for fines default since 2007. More than 55% of total committals to prison in Ireland in 2014 (9,000 committals) were for fines default.
For IPRT's submission on the EU Victims Directive, see here.
For more detail on IPRT's position on the vicious circle of social exclusion and crime, and the evidence which informs it, see here.