Greater use of community service or suspended sentences could reduce the rate of prisoners re-offending or returning to prison, research has found.
A new report by Professor of Criminology, Ian O’Donnell, at UCD, has examined factors that influence re-offending, or recidivism rates among prisoners.
The research also looked at various approaches adopted by prison and probation services across Europe as part of a scoping exercise commissioned by the Department of Justice,.
The findings published yesterday found that suspended sentences or community service and planned and structured early release from prison can reduce the potential for offenders relapsing and being rearrested, reconvicted, or reimprisoned.
Prof O’Donnell toldthat short-term prison sentences tend to be “very disruptive” but that community service can offer a more effective and less costly alternative to prison.
Prison sentences of a few months, he said, can result in offenders losing their housing or seeing their children go into care and the duration of the sentence is not long enough to address the reasons that led to the offending behaviour.
“The evidence is very strong that for offences that attract short sentences a period of community service is more effective than a brief term of incarceration and it is less expensive to administrate,” Prof O’Donnell said, adding that reoffending rates were lower among individuals given community service compared to those serving prison sentences.
The research also found that the age of first offence, previous convictions, substance abuse, and unemployment increased the risk of re-offending.
“Research in Norway found a strong relationship between employment and recidivism. It found that if people have a meaningful job that gives them structure to their day and a legitimate income the likelihood that they will re-offend is reduced,” Prof O’Donnell added.
Treatment programmes in prison and in the community that teach problem-solving and coping skills have also been shown to be effective.
How fairly prisoners feel they are treated also influences the likelihood that they might re-offend, Prof O’Donnell said: “There’s a good amount of research about how if you treat people fairly they will respond with good behaviour.”
Secretary General of the Department of Justice, Aidan O’Driscoll, said: “As this report points out, knowing the characteristics of recidivism prone individuals or situations will allow interventions to be targeted with greater precision and confidence.
“This is not only to the advantage of the individuals concerned and their families, but also to the wider community.”
According to the most recent figures from the Central Statistics Office, 46% of prisoners released in 2012 re-offended within three years of their release, while 43% of offenders managed by the Probation Service re-offended within three years.
The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) welcomed the research findings and said that evidence-based policy to reduce re-offending was “absolutely key to promoting community safety and public confidence in the criminal justice system”.
The human rights group said the findings on community services were particularly important given that community orders are underused.
“In Ireland, around three-quarters of all sentenced committals to prison in 2019 were for sentences of less than 12 months, while community service continues to be underused,” IPRT executive director Fíona Ní Chinnéide said.
“Further research is needed to understand why the courts persist in sending people to prison for less serious offences when both law and policy require that community-based sanctions are considered first.
"The reasons may relate to other issues including mental health, addictions, and homelessness. The barriers need to be identified and then addressed,” she added.