Irish recidivism rates remain stubbornly high, usually between 40% and 50%. This institutionalised failure suggests the arguments made by those who would reform the penal system are stronger than many would admit. That, however, is unlikely to provoke fundamental change.
From one perspective, our over-crowded, drug-riddled prisons look Victorian, relics of another time when an offender was denied liberty as a punishment and to protect society from their predations. This is an extremely expensive way to administer justice, especially as it seems more a transitory stage than a solution for nearly one-in-two offenders. It is also expensive in human terms so maybe it’s time to consider how our prison system works and, especially, the way we define the kind of sanctions we impose on offenders.
When international diplomacy fails, when a rogue nation misbehaves — Russia in Salisbury, Saudi Arabia in Istanbul — the world community talks about economic sanctions. Maybe we should consider applying severe economic sanctions to criminals — especially white-collar criminals — rather than traditional custodial sentences. If a repeat offender faced the prospect of the majority of their assets being seized by the State, effectively economic ruination, rather than a custodial sentence it might just move the goalposts. After all, if you deny, say, a gang boss their assets you strip them of power. If, after having lost their assets through a court-administer sentence, they offend again the offender could then be sent to jail for a term that reflects both crimes.
The Criminal Assets Bureau engages in that kind of work but questions about its effectiveness are raised by two figures. Last year it seized €4.3m in assets but the agency cost nearly twice that — €8.25m — to run. It is hard not to think that €4.3m is anything but the tip of an iceberg.
The latest CAB seizure involved cars when a car transporter was held at Dublin Port on Wednesday. Though the cars are estimated to be worth around €200,000 they may realise far less when sold suggesting the State’s effort-and-reward ratio is out of kilter. The impact such a seizure might have on, as was the case here, a drug-trafficking gang, is minimal. That may be about to change.
The EU has agreed on legislation to speed up the freezing and confiscation of criminal assets across the EU. The new rules were adopted by the EU parliament’s civil liberties committee on Tuesday and are designed to change a situation where a paltry 1% of the estimated criminal profits in the EU are confiscated. If that multiple is applied to CAB’s 2017 take then the figure should be over €430m. Even if that figure is purely theoretical it suggests that there is huge potential to dissuade criminals by denying them their assets rather than their liberty.
Crippling property seizures would of course only work when there is property to seize and would not apply to a great number of “ordinary” criminals. Nevertheless, it seems an idea worth considering — especially as the seized assets could be used to alleviate the social circumstances so often at the root of crime.