There is "a growing body of evidence" that community sanctions are more effective than prison terms in reducing reoffending among criminals.
Professor Ian O’Donnell, of University College Dublin, also said there are “encouraging findings” from peer support programmes involving sex offenders in prisons — where they take on roles providing emotional or practical support to fellow sex offenders.
The professor of criminology at the School of Law pointed out that Ireland has a much lower rate of imprisonment than other countries with a common-law legal system, with a rate half that of Scotland and one eighth that of the US.
He was giving the 13th annual Martin Tansey Memorial Lecture, entitled "Reducing Reoffending: Choices and Challenges" at the Association for Criminal Justice Research and Development.
He said that non-custodial penalties, including community sanctions, have a “vital role” in cutting reoffending and protecting society.
He said this involves protecting people, controlling expenditure on criminal justice responses and reducing the damage on offenders and their families.
The academic recently conducted a review on the area, published by the Department of Justice.
Prof O’Donnell said a number of major studies provide “a growing body of evidence” that community sanctions are more effective in reducing reoffending than prison sentences, with the latter being “a lot more expensive”.
He said one Dutch study involving more than 4,000 offenders, half of them on community sanctions, the other half on short prison sentences, found a significantly lower rate of recidivism, around 47%, for those receiving community penalties.
He said a Norwegian study highlights the benefits of employment in reducing reoffending, by providing a structure to the day, giving people the dignity of work and a legal means of having money — effects that are “magnified” if the job is stable and meaningful.
He said these benefits are particularly grasped by those who have already made a decision to turn away from crime.
On sex offenders in prison, he said those who take on “peer support” roles — such as providing emotional support or acting as literacy tutors — make their lives more meaningful and give them a sense of purpose.
He said these individuals can reflect on their lives and develop self-control. It “gives them a stake in conformity”, improves their self-image and helped promote “a virtuous cycle”.
Prof O’Donnell said that for a group as “denigrated” as sex offenders it is important to “take any opportunity” to reintegrate them.
He said these programmes are “worth pursuing” given the “encouraging findings” they are showing.
Prof O’Donnell cautioned that countries need to be “realistic” in transplanting programmes from abroad.
He said practical issues facing prisoners, such as unstable or no housing, poor employment, weak family and community ties, substance abuse, are very real and need to be addressed, adding that the “odds are heavily stacked against” offenders not reoffending.