The perception of imprisonment in Ireland has changed over the years from being solely a form of punishment to a form of rehabilitation. There is no longer a view of prison being the only way to deter members of society from committing crime. Now, there is a better understanding of the multiple methods of both deterrence and punishment, and thus prison sentences are not used so generally anymore. The increasingly popular opinion that prison should only be employed as a last resort was originally seen as implausible. In post-independence Ireland, despite the notion of Ireland being a ‘policeman’s paradise’, there was a sense of control in society where imprisonment was used as a means of controlling the lower classes. Karl Marx explained in his Marxist theories of crime “the effects of a capitalistic society on how justice is administered, describing how society is divided by money and power” (Tibbets, S., Hemmens, C. 2015). This concept suggests that the upper classes of society used the law as a means of maintaining dominance over the lower classes and ensuring the security of their wealth. Additionally, Marxist theories indicate that the wealth accumulated by the middle and upper classes can be used to increase political and legal power, therefore shifting the balance of power in society. The presence of inequality and injustice among members of society where the result is a sense of oppression among the lower classes, has often led to an increase in crime. The declining level of employment, high emigration rates and decrease in real income, with the dependence on agriculture being the only real source of income all played party to the upper classes using different methods of coercive confinement as a means of containment. Psychiatric institutions, residential institutions and homes for unmarried mothers and children were all used as an additional form of imprisonment leading up to the 1970s. There was a pattern of confinement in Ireland for transgressing religious or social norms, in addition to imprisonment for criminal offences. The effectiveness of imprisonment as a sanction depends primarily on the number of re-offences after one has been previously committed, and the crime levels as a result of imposing imprisonment as a sanction.
Crime rates in Ireland fell behind other countries between the 1960s and 2000, along with a staggered trend over the years. While the interpretation of crime statistics differs country to country, it is a challenge to study regardless. In Ireland, the difficulty arose with an over-reliance on police data. A survey conducted by O’Connell and Whelan in 1994; Watson 2000 showed that there remains an excessive dependence on the official picture and when it is unclear, explanation becomes difficult. This was made increasingly challenging when the system of collecting and presenting crime data changed in 2000 unexpectedly and without any explanation. Along with the changes made in collecting and categorising crime data, there was also a replacement in the four categories of ‘indictable’ crime with ten categories of ‘headline’ crime. Headline crimes cover more serious crimes, namely property crime and violence. PULSE (Police Using Leading Systems Effectively) highlighted an increase in a varied number of crimes recorded after being implemented in 2000. This was not necessarily because of an increase in crime, but was more likely to be due to the change in crime data processing. It simply made it easier to record the crimes that were being committed. There are a minimal number of cases of temporary release and more people serving their time in prison compared to the past, with an increase in the duration of sentences, and less people being offered temporary release or being denied bail (O’Donnell, 2004; O’Donnell, 2005b). In 1996 a ‘Zero Tolerance’ policy was instigated, despite the fact that levels of recorded crime were falling. It embraced a decision to punish more, after 50 percent of the public had selected crime and law and order as the prominent issue in Irish society. Subsequently, the number of prisoners increased and the crime rates began to drop. The number of prisoners between 1990 and 1996 did not shift significantly and would not surpass 2200. By 1997 it reached over 2400, continuing with a steady increase until 3100 and remaining there securely. At this point, the populations in prisons had increased when the sentenced committals were beginning to fall.
What distinguishes Ireland from other countries with regards to crime trends and how crime is handled is the lack of information about crime and punishment. In the 1980s when crime rates were at their peak, there was a lack of concern among the public about these high levels of crime. Whereas in the late 1990s when crime rates were falling again, the public were demanding action from the government. This offers the conclusion that the perception of crime among the Irish population is fairly inconsistent with the actual trends in crime. ‘In the periods 1975-1979, 1980-1984 and 1985-1989 there was little change, with an annual average of less than thirty killings. There was a slight increase during 1990-1994 and a significant surge in 1995-1999, when the annual average death toll rose to fifty’ (Kilcommins, S 2004). McCullagh (1996) examined the increase in crime trends between 1960 and the 1990s, identifying the connection between economic growth and increasing numbers of property and white-collar crime. He proposed that the working class saw the increase in community wealth as a motivator for crime (McAlister, S Healy, D 2015). An objection to this observation was made by O’Donnell and O’Sullivan (2001) where they pointed out that this did not explain the significant decrease in crime during the 1990s, despite the economic growth that occurred and substantial societal changes.
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