28th July 2009
Madam, - The McCarthy report has contributed greatly to our understanding of how the public sector spends; what seems to be lacking, however, is a broader analysis of what the public sector is meant to achieve. In this newspaper (July 23rd) Maureen Gaffney has persuasively cautioned against sacrificing necessary agencies in the rush to trim the public sector. We also need to understand that complex social issues can’t be seen in isolation.
One key priority for Government that we can all agree on is the need to reduce crime and to build a safer society. While McCarthy concludes, correctly, that the replacement of Mountjoy and Cork prisons with modern facilities could create some efficiencies, there is no analysis of the economic or social prudence of continuing to expand a prison system that costs €100,000 per prisoner per year. From an economic perspective, reducing crime rates at the cause of crime is much cheaper than treating the symptoms through imprisonment.
Even in the United States, the world’s biggest gaoler, it is now accepted that dollars spent on early interventions in high-risk communities save multiple dollar amounts in the longer term. For example, a recent study in Washington State has shown that investing $2,400 in well-designed supports for the families of young offenders can save the taxpayer almost $50,000 in the longer term by reducing reoffending. In the same way, investing just $600 in providing targeted early childhood education to the most disadvantaged communities saves society on average $15,000 per child in lower future crime rates.
We know that our prison population is made up in significant part by young people who have fallen through the cracks of our care system, our education system and our mental health services and who come largely from a small number of extremely poor urban communities. In balancing the books for 2009, we need to plan for a society that will be a going concern for some time into the future.
From that perspective, one does not need a PhD in economics to foresee that cuts in resources to high-risk groups could well mean storing up much larger social and economic liabilities for future generations. Surely a false economy? – Yours, etc,
Irish Penal Reform Trust,
Upper Ormond Quay,
Originally printed in The Irish Times on Tuesday 28th July, 2009.