Alternatives to prison 35 times less expensive

AN alternative system for dealing with offenders is around 35 times less expensive than prisons and boasts a much lower reoffending rate, new figures show.

The country’s two restorative justice programmes — one in Tipperary and one in Dublin — have an average cost per offender of around €2,500.

This compares to the average cost of keeping a person in prison of more than €90,000.

The two projects record reoffending rates among participants of between 10% and 20%, again comparing favourably with the prison system.

Research published last month showed that 30% of released prisoners were back in jail after one year, rising to 50% within four years.

The projects are an alternative to prison for people convicted of an offence and involve the offender admitting guilt and a willingness to repair the damage and hurt caused to the victim.

The Nenagh Community Reparation Project (NCRP) said eight-out-of-10 offenders who’ve taken part in the programme have not committed another crime.

The NCRP received a total budget of €40,000 last year for its 18 participants and one employed administrator. This breaks down to, on average, €2,200 per offender.

The Tipperary initiative is the brainchild of the Probation Service and the local district court judge, Michael Reilly.

“Restorative justice is a way of the community taking part in the justice process of the offender, making reparation for the wrong done to both the victim and the community,” said NCRP coordinator and probation officer Carole Gleeson.

“If you talk about the victim we always say that the victim can be the individual, the gardaí or the community.”

She said 86 offenders had been referred to the project between 1999 and November 2006, 77 of whom were deemed suitable.

Of these, 62 were first time offenders and 15 had a previous conviction.

Of the 77 participants, 78% have not reoffended since. Among first time offenders, the figure rises to 81%.

Ms Gleeson said offences committed by participants include public order crimes, assault, theft, criminal damage and possession of offensive weapons.

Peter Keeley, director of Restorative Justice Services in Tallaght, west Dublin, said it had a budget of €320,000 in 2005. Broken down among its 120 referrals last year, it suggests an average cost per offender of €2,700, including staff costs.

He said six out of 70 participants in the Offender Reparation Programme in 2004 committed a crime afterwards — a reoffending rate of 9%.

He said he did not have an overall rate for the 350 people who have gone through the programme in the last three years, which mainly deals with first time offenders and lesser crimes. Participants escape a criminal conviction if they complete the programme.

Mr Keeley said there had been 80 referrals to the Victim-Offender Mediation service in the last four year, which deals with more serious crimes and involves contact between offenders and victims.

Up to 40% of such cases progress to meetings between offenders and victims, he said.

Ms Gleeson said one obstacle to expanding restorative justice programmes was the lack of legislation covering the area. But she said judges, like Judge Reilly, had the authority to come up with imaginative ideas.

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