Essay: Imprisonment in Ireland

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  • Subject area(s): Criminology essays
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  • Imprisonment in Ireland
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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.

From the 1970s onwards, there was a change in attitude towards coercive confinement. Prison had become the primary method of confinement, with four percent of the population in 1970 that were detained against their will being found in prison. By 2000, this number was at forty percent. Ireland was moving from being a society of ‘coercive confinement’ to downsizing the ‘carceral society’. Garland explains that there was a reinvention of prison in Ireland from being a place of last resort, despite how problematic, “to an effective and essential means of punishment and incapacitation” (Garland, D pg.233). Essentially, since capital and corporal punishment were abolished, prison did become the sanction of last resort. Moreover, despite the social and financial costs of sentencing members of society to prison, there is still a strong understanding that it should be used. The troubles in Northern Ireland added to the growing demand on prisons with the increase of armed crime across the country. The Prison Rules 1947 were reinstituted in 1983 in attempt to introduce prison governors, with the intention of allowing more than one prisoner per cell due to the growing prison populations. Despite these attempts, prisons were continuing to face overcrowding and Temporary Release (TR) was implemented, although it was already permitted under the Criminal Justice Act 1960, it was very seldom used. Between the 1970s and 1990s, there was an increase in how often it was granted, with less than 1500 in the 1980s and 3500 in the 1990s per year. With crime rates at their highest in the mid 1990s, prisons were heavily overcrowded and TR was not a sufficient solution. Tackling Crime, a discussion document published in 1997 following the change of government in 1994, sparked talks about implementing a maximum number on how many prisoners were to be held at any given time. It was advised that another 840 beds were needed until another change in government in 1997 prompted discussions of a different policy, the ‘Zero Tolerance’ policy. John O’Donoghue TD, Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform between 1997 and 2002, “declared the need for 2000 additional places” (Crime, Punishment and the Search for Order in Ireland pg.237). In early 1998 the National Crime Forum called for “a fundamental change of focus to make prison the option of last resort, to be used sparingly and only when all other options have been tried or considered and ruled out for cogent reasons” (Crime, Punishment and the Search for Order in Ireland pg.239). In 2002, An Garda Siochana conducted a survey which concluded that the public did not find prison to be an effective method of punishment. With the 10,000 plus people interviewed, 81 percent supported the statement “prison does not prevent re-offending” (Garda Attitude Unit 2002, Garda Public Attitude Survey 2002. Templemore: An Garda Siochana, p.32). There was a strong opinion among the public at the time that fines, community service and probation were the more ideal option. Reserving prison for serious crimes became a popular opinion.

Due to the inadequacy of crime data in Ireland, establishing the effectiveness of using prison sentencing as a form of reducing crime is highly challenging. With there being a lack of transparency between the number of sentences imposed by the court and the number of people who actually went to prison versus being bailed or appealed successfully, identifying a true conclusion about prison sanctions and cases is a task in itself. The Irish attitude toward crime and punishment has been one where the foremost desire it to protect society. However, with a relatively basic standard of information about crime there is a level of dependence on government instinct to make decisions about implementing new procedures. In the 1980s, Community Service Orders were beginning to come into use, with the first occurring in 1985. Despite this implementation, prison sentences were still the popular sanction. In 1990, 130 prisoners were received into custody for every 100 persons awarded probation of community service (O’Donnell, I 2004), indicating that prison sanctions were indeed the standard form of punishment and that the judges had a tendency toward it. By the late 1990s, the increase in the number of sex offenders had increased significantly, thus increasing the average prison population. One in seven sentenced prisoners were serving time for sex crimes (O’Donnell, I 2004). Despite the downward trend of committals over recent years, Ireland remains high up on the list for the rate of increase in prisoner numbers in comparison to other EU members. It has been questioned whether the excessive use of prison sentencing in Ireland is due to the lack of alternate options, or if there is tendency toward harsher sentencing in Ireland. In January 2002, John O’Donoghue addressed the fight against crime, claiming that:
“Whatever may be said about the harshness of this as an approach to tackling what was a very bad crime problem, there is no doubt that it has had a significant bearing on the drop in crime in recent years.”
His statement was criticised when a number of studies conducted had prompted the argument that “while the expansion of the prison system probably has an impact on property crime (especially larceny), it has little discernible effect on levels of interpersonal violence” (Crime, Punishment and the Search for Order in Ireland pg.241). Also, it is worth noting that there was no evidence that prison was an effective method in deterring people from property crime.

The current prison system in Ireland is a reflection of the economic conditions that transformed the system in the 1990s, and of a significant change in societal attitude towards crime. At the end of the 20th century Ireland, “a rapid rise in prosperity, growing secularisation and a net inward migration created an increasingly self-confident society in flux” (O’Sullivan E, O’Donnell I pg. 28). Prison was indeed an effective method of confinement in the sense that a large number of people were imprisoned between the 1970s and late 1990s, however, it was not an effective method of deterring crime. Despite the increase in prison sentencing, crime trends did not reflect a decrease in criminal activity as a response to this. The statistics show that the decrease in crime is not a result of prison being a deterrent. Instead, it is a result of economic growth in society and an increase in employment levels. Although Ireland had only been emerging as a society from a culture of ‘coercive confinement’ in the late 1960s, there remained a culture of control between the classes. Ensuring a strict policy on crime and keeping levels of imprisonment high encouraged a strict level of control over the lower classes. Given the difficulty of monitoring trends in crime in Ireland due to the lack of recorded data, establishing a definitive conclusion about the effectiveness of prison as a sanction is challenging. That being said, based on the prison populations and number of prison staff we are able to establish some level of understanding surrounding the effectiveness of prison as a sanction. By comparing the prison populations and increased number of staff to the number of people re-committing crime or being re-committed to prison, it is possible to develop some insight of the motivation behind crime trends and whether prison was effectively deterring people from committing crime. Prior to 1985 prison was not seen as a last resort, it was seen as the only form of punishment available. That is, until other forms of punishment such as community service were considered and brought into effect.

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