Figures provided to Galway West Independent TD Noel Grealish, prior to the Dáil recess, show an alarming rate of recidivism among people released from Irish prisons. Although the rate has declined over the past decade it is still very high by international standards; closer to that of the United States than to most European countries.
The three-year re-offending rate among prisoners released in 2017 was 61%. That was significantly down on the 68% three-year rate recorded for prisoners whose sentences ended in 2011.
The rate of re-offending within one year of release was also down from 54% in 2011 but remains extremely high at 45%.
Those statistics indicate that almost half of those freed will have reoffended within a year, and that almost two thirds will have re-offended within three years of being re-admitted to society.
Apart from whatever failures this might suggest about the system and its putative role as a place of rehabilitation, the main concern is obviously for the safety of law-abiding citizens.
A 2013 report by the Irish Prison Service on recidivism highlights the very different rates among different types of prisoner. That report was based on statistics that indicated an overall recidivism rate of 62.3% in the three year period for the 2007 cohort.
Most disturbingly was that of those who did re-offend, that two thirds did so within the first six months of being released.
The highest rate of re-offending was, rather worryingly, among those convicted of burglary and related offences, of whom almost 80% were re-arrested within the three year period. The lowest rates not surprisingly were among those sentenced for non-payment of fines and for public order offences. Prisoners under the age of 21 were 68.5% likely to re-offend with the rate declining as criminals age, although 39% of those aged 50 and over were re-imprisoned or re-convicted.
Denmark, whose prison system would be regarded as quite lenient, had a rate similar to the Irish prison system of 63%. The three year rate for the United States, a decade ago, was 62%.
There are different schools of thought with regard to the role of prisons. There is no credible political or other organisation calling for the “abolition” of prisons as has gained a significant hearing among the American Democratic left and university criminology departments. As the reaction of Mick Barry the Cork TD to the announcement of increased Garda activity in Dublin illustrates, however, there is a significant element on the left which is constantly searching for a “classist” or “racist” angle to any attempt to crack down on crime.
The fact that crime disproportionately impacts working class communities manages to go over the heads of most leftists. Sinn Féin tends to be rather more circumspect in that regard and is mindful of the fact that much of its electoral success in Dublin was initially based on republican involvement in community action against drug dealers and joy riders.
One of the more recent recruits, and a man not unknown to have been critical of that aspect of Sinn Féin when he used to run against them in elections, the Sinn Féin TD for Dublin Mid West, Mark Ward, clearly tends towards to the view that criminals are perhaps themselves some class of victims, who may only get into bother because of afflictions that are possibly not of their own making.
While avoiding the cruder “capitalism made me mug your Granny on the way home from the post office” school of crèche Marxist criminology, Ward did recently refer in the Dáil to the high rate of recidivism and provided a list comprised of a “multiple of conditions” which it seems, although he does not explicitly say so, are partly responsible perhaps for people ending up doing bird. They include “mood and anxiety disorder, neurotic and stress-related disorders, disorders of personality and behaviour, complex and other post-traumatic stress disorder, self-harm, suicidal behaviour, substance use, eating disorders, psychosis, schizophrenia, addiction, dementia, cognitive decline, traumatic brain injuries, impulse disorders and disorders of sexual preference.”
For those who are the victims of crime, they naturally tend to be less concerned about whatever “issues” makes people commit crimes, and more about what is being done to protect society from a small minority of people who punch far above their weight in causing misery and hardship and worse for the communities and individuals on whom they prey.
While prison ought of course be a place where prisoners should be able to access education, drug therapy, counselling, work training etc, fundamentally they are meant to be places where those who are a danger to others are kept away from society for a set period. Even if prison does not rehabilitate, and it appears that it mostly does not, it does at least serve its primary function.
I suspect more people would prefer that this role be enhanced through more and longer sentences, rather than the needs of the prisoners taking priority – with the consequence that no one is seemingly any better off, if the statistics are any guide.