THE Inspector of Prisons has called for a new courts system which would address the causes of criminality rather than criminalise offenders.
Judge Michael Reilly said evaluations of such systems in other countries had found a “marked decrease in low-level crime”.
He said the system, called Problem Solving Justice, included a range of courts: community courts; drug courts; domestic violence courts and mental health courts. “The concept of Problem Solving Justice is what is says. It is using the main players of the existing criminal justice system to address the underlying problems that have led to low levels of criminality,” said Judge Reilly.
“I have seen at first-hand a number of these courts in operation in the United States and in England. They are all judge-led and because the emphasis is on problem-solving they bear no relation to criminal courts. They are non-adversarial. They do not by and large lead to convictions. All evaluations of such courts point to a marked decrease in low-level crime.”
He said community courts were recommended in a 2007 report by the National Crime Council. The court would deal with local “quality of life” crimes, such as theft, criminal damage and public disorder.
Judge Reilly said this system would help address the crisis facing prisons.
“Overcrowding is a major problem. The prison population is ever increasing,” said the inspector. He said last May, prison numbers stood at 4,276, compared with 3,197 when he took up office in January 2008, a rise of 34%.
He said there were two simple solutions: either build more prison spaces or reduce the prison population. The judge said prison spaces should be built only if there was an actual need and “if other options are exhausted”, such as the new courts and other non-custodial options, including restorative justice.
He said community service orders — community sanctions supervised by the Probation Service — should be substituted for short sentences for low-level crime.
“This would have the effect of reducing the numbers in custody quite considerably.”
Legal expert Tom O’Malley of National University of Ireland, Galway, said Ireland was “virtually unique” in the common-law world for not engaging in any sustained examination of its sentencing policy and practices.
He said in June 2009 Ireland had 80-90 prisoners per 100,000 people, which he said was “relatively low” by European standards. England’s was 154, while Scotland’s stood at 149.
He said prison numbers in Ireland had grown and was now in excess of 90 per 100,000.
“This is a very significant increase over the past two years or so and it points to the need for an urgent examination as to what is driving this increase. In particular, it should motivate us to examine sentencing patterns for non-violent offences, including some drug trafficking offences, which may be attracting higher sentences than are strictly necessary at the present time.”
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