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Posts Tagged ‘crime’

Fine defaulters and Irish Prison Policy

November 10, 2009 2 comments

In the Irish Times yesterday, Conor Lally informs us that the number of people jailed for not paying fines is likely to double this year, bringing the numbers of committals for non payment of fines up to one quarter of all committals to prison. 2,520 people were committed to jail for non payment of a fine in 2008.

This should not come as a surprise as economic difficulties worsen. What is difficult to understand is why policy makers have been slow to impose what would be a very easy partial solution to our overcrowding problems. Those who cannot pay fines should not end up in prison. Those who are not deemed enough of a risk or whose offending is not serious enough to warrant a prison sentence should not be taking up much needed space in our jails.

Recent research by Professor Ian O’Donnell, Professor Eric Baumer and Nicola Hughes of University College Dublin has also found that fine defaulters who are sent to prison are the most likely of all offenders to return to prison. 85% of those sent to prison for fine default end up back in jail within 4 years. This is a startling statistic and, as the authors note, removing fine defaulters from the prison system altogether would significantly reduce recidivism rates and the numbers of released prisoners would fall, reducing the burden on the communities to which ex-prisoners return. This is quite apart from the alleviation of the administrative burden on the Irish Prison Service which comes with fine defaulters sent to prison, many of whom remain for a short period of time.

The Fines Bill 2009 will allow fines to be paid by instalments. Judges will also be able to impose Community Service Orders instead of fines. This Bill should be enacted without delay.The Oireachtas should also take this opportunity to re-examine our system of punishment and the use of Community Service Orders more generally.

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Crisis in criminal justice: invoking The Wire

August 31, 2009 Leave a comment

Heated hyperbole in the context of crime and criminal justice all too often leads to rushed, unnecessary and repressive legislation. Debate about justice policy is depicted as involving the polarities of crime control and due process (as if respecting the latter ineluctably leads to inefficiency and undue leniency), and the demands of crime control are given weight and justified by reference to dramatic and particularly heinous crimes. In this sense, exaggeration of the crime problem and stressing the failures of the criminal justice system are commonplace in political circles.

Such invocation of crisis was most recently illustrated by the UK Shadow Home Secretary, Chris Grayling, when he compared parts of Manchester to the streets of Baltimore (as depicted in TV series The Wire), despite the latter city having a homicide rate many times in excess of any area in the UK. Although TDs have yet to cotton on to such contemporary TV references, similar tactics have been used in Ireland to justify legislation including the Criminal Justice Acts 2006 and 2007, the Criminal Justice (Surveillance) Act 2009 and the Criminal Justice (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2009. It has been alleged that Ireland is “more akin to downtown Bogotá than a modern European capital, such is the extent of gangland murder, assaults, and violent crime”; that “gangland law” now exists in Ireland; that “many of our urban areas are terrified by rampant gangland crime, which is apparently making huge parts of the country ungovernable” and that gun crime is “reminiscent of gang warfare in east Los Angeles”. Such commentary comes from across the political spectrum and provides ripe opportunity for the introduction of unduly “robust” measures that pay scant regard to traditional due process norms and values. Although the Irish judiciary, for the most part, remain resolute in upholding the due process rights of the individual, irresponsible invocations of places with far graver crime problems than Ireland heightens public fear and ratchets up the fearful tenor of political discourse. This in turn leaves any politician who fails to support such provisions open to accusations of being naïve and failing to grasp the reality of crime in communities.

Rather than relying on a comparison with The Wire or its equivalent to exaggerate the problem of crime, policy makers in the UK and Ireland should look to the series’ incisive commentary on the causes of crime to assist in the development of laws; namely savage deprivation; widespread failings in the educational system; cynical policing tactics; the misguided war on drugs; widespread hard drug abuse, and the persistence of a misogynistic and violent conception of masculinity.