23rd February 2016
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It's the final week of the 2016 General election campaign, and unlike 2011, crime and justice has played centre-stage in the debates. While most of the focus has been on the need for increased resourcing of An Garda Síochána - a point on which all the parties are agreed - we have also seen a return of reactionary proposals (mandatory sentencing) and memorable soundbites ("When they're behind bars, you'll be safe"). Hopefully, when the lights, cameras and pollsters recede again, the next Government, whatever its make-up, will form its criminal justice policy around what is proven to be most effective in preventing crime and reducing reoffending.
For this reason, one of IPRT's priority calls on the next Government will be a clear commitment to a coherent and evidence-informed penal policy, grounded in crime data analysis, which is made public.
A second key commitment would be to implement the recommendations of the cross-agency Strategic Review on Penal Policy. Although the Review represents only the minimum standards that should be achieved, implementation of its recommendations would be a strong move in the right direction.
Building on the approaches that have proven so successful in the Irish youth justice system, a third key commitment would be tothe development by the Dept of Justice of a discrete strategy for young adults aged 18–24 in conflict with the law.
We have a long wishlist in the area of reintegration and rehabilitation, but from speaking directly to prisoners, action on the establishment of a fully independent parole board on a statutory basis is the fourth key commitment we would like to see in the next Programme for Government.
Finally - and arguably, above all - we will be calling for a firm commitment to improved systems of prison accountability in the next Programme for Government - specifically, the introduction of an independent prisoner complaints mechanism, ratification of the OPCAT, and the creation of a robust National Preventative Mechanism. Put simply, independent oversight is key to preventing potential human rights abuses behind prison walls, while public confidence in the prison system demands transparency and accountability.
In the run up to the 2016 General Election, we have been engaging with crime and justice debates online and off, including a temporary new face for the IPRT.ie website, and constant interaction on social media. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook and add your voice to the debate!
IPRT has developed 10 priority directions towards a fairer and more effective justice system. We have also detailed key actions and evidence. Find out more here.
What are the parties saying about criminal justice? We have analysed the manifestos of the main parties against the evidence that underpins all of IPRT's policy positions. Find out more here.
Ultimately, crime cannot be addressed in isolation from wider failures in social policy, and to this end IPRT is actively supporting a number of campaigns across the social justice sector, in particular the Hands Up for Children campaign as part of the Prevention and Early Intervention Network, and Our State of Mind campaign led by Mental Health Reform.
Progress in the area of penal reform since 2011 In Feb 2011, IPRT put together ten priorities for creating better and safer communities, proposals which we believed should be included in a new programme for government.
So, where are we 5 years on? A summary follows below; access the full article here.
1. Prevention and Early Intervention
There have been positive developments since 2011, including strong commitments enshrined in the 2014 framework Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures, but these must be implemented in full, and adequately resourced. Cuts to drugs treatment and other community services have also had negative impact: funding to evidence-informed treatment and services need to be restored.
2. Reduce Prisoner Numbers
There has been significant progress since 2011 towards addressing Ireland's chronically overcrowded prison system. Numbers in prison custody, which rocketed from 2007 and peaked at 4,600 in 2011, are around 3,750 in 2016. The prison population has been reduced safely through initiatives and innovations, including the Community Return Programme, and measures introduced by government to reduce the numbers of people given short custodial sentences for less serious offences.
3. Alternatives to Prison for Less Serious Offences
The Community Service Amendment Act 2011 was enacted in October 2011, and (when fines are excluded) there has been a reduction in short sentences handed down by the Courts in recent years. This is positive. However, the numbers of community services orders have also fallen, and there is inconsistency in practice around the country. Additionally, the high rates of women committed to prison for non-violent offences persists.
4. Review of Mandatory Sentencing
There have been a number of definitive findings - by the Law Reform Commission, and also the Strategic Review of Penal Policy - that mandatory and presumptive sentencing does not achieve its aims, that existing presumptive sentencing laws around drugs and firearms should be repealed, and that mandatory sentencing schemes should not be extended. IPRT welcomed these findings.
5. Humane Prison Conditions
There have been very positive and (literally) concrete action to address unfit and inhumane prison conditions since 2011, including renovations of Mountjoy Prison to eliminate slopping out; the opening of a new Cork Prison in February 2016; and tendering for renovations at Limerick Prison. Although slopping out persists in Portlaoise Prison, and building has yet to commence in Limerick Prison, there has been an overall reduction in the numbers slopping out from over 1,000 in advance of the last general election, to around 100 today. This is a significant commitment met by the outgoing government.
In 2012, the remit of the Inspector of Prisons was extended to include investigations into deaths occurring in prison custody and shortly after release from prison, with the reports made public. This has been of crucial importance to overall prison accountability. The Irish Prison Service also introduced a new internal complaints system, with an element of independent oversight for the most serious complaints. This is also positive. Nevertheless, in 2016 prisoners in Ireland still do not have access to a fully independent complaints mechanism, and the urgent need for a Prisoner Ombudsman, or equivalent, remains.
7. End Imprisonment of Children in Ireland
Ending the imprisonment of children in Ireland was a commitment included in the Programme for Government 2011-2016. Since 2012, 16-year-old boys have not been detained in the adult prison system (with some rare exceptions), and new facilities have been built at the children detention school campus at Oberstown, Co. Dublin to accommodate newly remanded 17-year-old boys. In 2013, all 17-year-boys detained under sentence were transferred to Wheatfield Place of Detention. However, a small number of boys continue to be detained on remand in St Patrick's Instn. Overall, there has been strong progress, but staffing and other issues at Oberstown now need to be solved to finally end the practice of imprisoning children in an adult prison environment in Ireland.
8. Review of Detention of Women
In 2014, the Irish Prison Service and the Probation Service launched a joint strategy on women offenders, which acknowledged that "women’s offending is multi-faceted and complex", and only "in a minority of cases prison is necessary." In 2014, Ireland's two female prisons were the most crowded across the prison system, but in 2015 and 2016 the two prisons have operated nearer capacity. This is progress, but it is slight. A lot more needs to to be done in terms of gender-proofed alternatives to prison, open prison facilities for females serving long-sentences, and provision of community-based 'one-stop-shop' centres.
9. Reintegration and Rehabilitation
The Criminal Justice (Spent Convictions and Certain Disclosures) Bill 2012 finally passed through both houses of the Oireachtas in February 2016; and an 'administrative filter' was introduced for Garda Vetting in March 2014. While welcoming these developments, IPRT remains disappointed at the limited reach of the legislation as passed. It is crucial that people who have demonstrated that they have moved on from their offending pasts are supported in overcoming barriers to education, employment, insurance, and so on.
10. Making our Communities Safer
Although the White Paper process has not yet been completed, the cross-agency Strategic Review on Penal Policy Report, published Sept 2014, takes an evidence-informed approach to how the penal system can and should play its part in supporting safer communities, and reducing reoffending. It marks a significant achievement. Full implementation of its recommendations (at a minimum) is the next step for 2016-21.
In short, much progress has been achieved in key areas under the current government - but much remains to be done. Find out more here.
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