Justice and Law and Order
We need to have real practical reforms to ensure consistency in sentencing and the delivery of real justice. The aims of the criminal justice system when it comes to dealing with those convicted of offenses are often summed up in terms of Punishment (as a means to deter crime in the first place), Protection of society, and Rehabilitation (both as a means to prevent crime in the future). We have to ask ourselves hard questions as to whether or not we are achieving any of those aims.
Prison on its own often allows us as a society feel good but the question remains whether the regime we operate does any real practical good. Have we the right people in prison for the appropriate lengths of time? And what do we do beyond prison? My perspective is that the balance of the criminal justice system is unduly skewed so that it prioritises crimes against property over those against the person. How often do you hear about someone convicted of armed robbery getting a suspended sentence? I believe that we need to look are refocusing sentencing so that custodial sentences are primarily for those who are violent and a danger to society.
Since the DPP is staffed by professionals they should be able to ask for a sentence appropriate to the seriousness of the particular offence compared to the sentencing norms that would be established by reviewing previous sentences. And that is reflective of the nature of the crime committed. However, if you wanted to know what the average sentence for assault was in 1995 there is no point in asking the department of justice as no one had been tracking some ploddingly trivialities like who got how long for doing what. So the department does not know what the norms are because they’re not tracking sentence.
Role of the judiciary
When a judge deviates from the norm they should be able to stand over their sentence and justify it. If they can’t and the sentence is completely at variance with what other judges are doing for similar offenses then it leads us into the potential for the inconsistent application of justice. In the worst of cases it will undermine the public’s confidence that they haven’t been influenced in some way. The application of justice should not be a lottery depending on which judge you get, that goes for the defendant as well as the victims. The office of the DPP should be able to ask for a sentence on behalf of the people that is reflective of the nature of the crime committed.
We should implement the recommendations of moving towards a US model of Murder 1 and Murder 2. There are other lessons we could learn from other jurisdictions.
The US has a strong tradition of more democratic involvement by the public in the administration of justice. I’m not suggesting that we should have politicians in charge of hand down sentences, far from it. Nor do I not wish to see the minister for justice or anyone else interfering in court proceedings (though those sorts of power exists more than we might realise or like). However, we should explore the possibility of allowing the general public to black ball or remove specific individual from the bench on a 5 year cycle timed to coincide with the local and European elections, if the public feel that their sentencing has been deviating from the norms that people would expect. Direct election of all the members of the judicial as is the case in some parts of the US not a measure I would favour.
While we have had plenty of law-law in the form new legislation, but what we’ve not had was the same measure of order-order with the enforcement of the legislation. Despite restrictions on bail, we still have many offenses being committed, in particular crimes of violence, by people out on bail. It would appear that many of them believe that offenses committed while on bail. They also reckon that offenses committed after they have committed their first offense and before they are apprehended while
We have had far too many cases of people with prior violent convictions who have assaulted people and once that assault was committed and they know they are likely to be caught that they are simply off the lease. It should be possible any assessing someone’s suitability for bail for the Gardaí to refer to someone’s previous record with respect to charges, convictions and behaviour while on bail.
Mandatory sentences appear not to have gotten through to some members of the judiciary. The truth is that sentencing alone doesn’t deter crime; it is the likelihood of being caught that deters people from committing offenses.
We need to strengthen sentencing for crimes against the person.
We need to end the practice of automatic unearned remission. Simply serving your time and not creating any problems should not earning you remission, on the contrary violent criminal offenses should lead to increases in the time to be served. With other misbehaviour to be dealt with by the removal of privileges while inside.
We have to consider sanctions that last below the prison term for offenders that are a high risk of recidivism in particular child sex offenders.
However, we need to ensure that the sex offenders register does not become. To suggest a 17 year old male convicted of consensual sex with their 16 year old girlfriend should be on the same register as a predator that preyed on primary school age is to misuse a valuable resource in protecting the vulnerable. Only those who represent a risk of re-offending should be on this register.
The role of rehabilitation for offenders in our prisons is almost non-existent. In truth time in prison ends up making the situation worse as prisoners are exposed to more hardened criminals in an environment where violence and drug-taking are the norm. These are state-funded universities of crime.
In combination with this, we need to realise that if we are prepared to spend X millions on prison then we need to commit to similar expenditure on prevention and that means educational opportunities and family supports. Justice is more than just building prisons and introducing new laws. It is about the fair and equitable application of the law.
A concrete solution is to integrate more the social justice system and the criminal justice system. The following steps would assist in doing this:
More formal support for the re-integration of offenders back into society upon release
All too often offenders, particularly the youngest inmates, leave prison and quickly end up back in the same surroundings and with the same temptations and pressures that set them on the path to committing crime in the first place. For a considerable period of time prior to release offenders need have access to mentors who have successfully made the transition and they need to be encouraged towards taking up educational and training options while still inside. Interesting initiatives are happening in the UK under a Tory government of all things that we should pay close attention too. When prisoners participate in education and training it reduces the likelihood of reoffending. In addition, we need more proactive liaison after release and in assisting offenders to stay away from drugs/alcohol and in coping with family problems.
Dealing with mentally-ill prisoners
There are an increasing number of people with a variety of mental illnesses in our criminal justice system. While society may need to be protected from those who are violent we must also consider that the criminal justice system as presently constituted is not able to provide the required rehabilitation or punishment that is needed. This is not about giving people a soft option but about ensuring that once released these individuals will not constitute a risk to society of re-offending.
There must be alternatives to prison for debtors, and those not paying fines
Far too many non-violent people have been sent to prison for the non-payment of fines or their failure to discharge debts. These are people who don’t belong in the custodial prison system. It would be far more appropriate to garnish their earnings or social welfare payments in combination with community service. The new government appears to have proposals in this area in the program for government and I welcome them and would push for their early implementation.
It seems odd to me that whenever any practical alternatives to prison are suggested certain sectors of society completely lose the plot; whether it is ankle bracelets, curfews, or random testing for drugs. We seem to have embedded in our heads, both on the left and the right of the political debate, a belief that it is prison or nothing else. As free citizens we have many rights including the right to liberty which could be curbed in the case of those convicted of non violent offences. Why for example should we not prevent someone from being able to consume of alcohol in future if they are convicted of an alcohol related crime? We could even consider in extreme situations the ongoing drug and alcohol testing of some offenders post release or the electronic monitoring of sex offenders beyond their prison term. We should explore possible non-custodial options for non-violent offenders who aren’t a danger to society as they come up.
Support for victims and their families while prosecutions are ongoing.
Victims of crime should be consulted and advised of the progress of the case though they should be able to opt out of this if they so choose. We should not have cases where someone is released back into the community without the victims being aware of it. This happens all too often and in particular for victims of sexual crimes seeing their assailant back in their home town without warning is just unacceptable.
Renewing the political commitment to community policing
Community policing is often the Cinderella service with officers moved on as there is not a career path for them. We need to make being a Community Garda a possibility for life-long service if the officer so chooses. Attention must be paid to ensuring that community policing is recognised as a priority and that suitable career paths are opened up within the structures of the Gardaí to ensure that talented policing skills are attracted and remain within community policing.
This form of policing is proving to be very effective in making communities safer places to live. Their presence regular in the community reduces tension between the police and marginalised communities.
This is moreover the case in dealing with young people and any anti-social behaviour that can arise as young men especially make the transition into manhood. It also serves to enhance the ability of the Gardaí to detect serious crimes. However, political commitment to community policing needs to be expressed through more resources and also through the involvement of the community and local democratic structures in identifying policing priorities.
We should reserve money seized by CAB for drug rehabilitation.
This is a simple position that has overwhelmingly public support. We should ring-fence money seized by CAB for rehab groups and community based initiatives to prevent drug abuse.