MICHAEL CLIFFORD: Time to address the real problems if we are serious about fighting crime

Electronic tagging for people out on bail is nothing new. It’s this week’s mandatory minimum sentences — remember them, writes Michael Clifford

THE tradition of “fighting crime” with redundant but eye-catching initiatives had its latest outing this week. Electronic tagging is apparently the new panacea to tackle the perpetration of crime by people out on bail.

The measure was one of a number announced by Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald on Tuesday designed, she said, to strengthen the country’s bail laws.

Once more, efforts to combat crime have been directed at addressing anger and diverting eyes from the real problem rather than taking appropriate action.

Ms Fitzgerald’s new measures aren’t really new at all. There has been provision for electronic tagging of suspects awaiting trial since 2007. This, apparently, has not been used because its scope was too wide. So that provision was repackaged this week in order to give the impression that something was being done.

Like much that has gone before it in this area over the last 20 years, it amounts to little more than a restating of the law. In 1996, a referendum was held to allow courts deny bail if there was evidence a suspect was likely to re-offend while awaiting trial.

Evidence, the cornerstone of any criminal justice system in a democracy, is required for such a provision to be invoked, but that apparently is too much bother.

The new tagging wheeze is just one of a number of measures being brought in that will do nothing to tackle crime, but may well move towards eroding the presumption of innocence of a suspect.

Anybody who questions the dangers of embarking down that road is dismissed as a “bleeding heart liberal” who cares more for criminals than victims. In such a milieu, a closer examination of what’s going on would do no harm.

Electronic tagging is this week’s mandatory minimum sentences. Remember them? For the best part of a decade, the answer to any shocking incident of crime was to slap the particular offence with a mandatory minimum sentence.

The concept originated in the US in the 1980s as a weapon in the “war on drugs”. However, by the time it was introduced here in 2000 they were already seeing the futility of the measure stateside.

Minor offenders were clogging up the prisons. There was no reduction of crime. Mandatory sentences did absolutely nothing to deter young men in particular from a life of crime.

By the end of the 1990s, most states were trying to find a way to roll back on the system before their prison services went bankrupt with no commensurate reduction in crime.

Still, it sounded good and that was all that mattered in this jurisdiction. So for the next decade or so, mandatory minimum sentences were your only man when it came to crime.

In 2013, the Law Reform Commission recommended an end to the whole palaver in a report that was welcomed by Alan Shatter.

These days, mandatory minimum sentences are passe among the shrill chorus emanating from the usual politicians and elements of the media.

Electronic tagging has taken up the slack. It’s eye-catching, easily understood, and its implementation gives the impression of “striking back” at the criminals. Except in this case it’s designed for suspects out on bail rather than criminals, but that’s a minor detail for the shrill chorus.

The measure has been greeted by representatives of victims groups, one of whom repeatedly said on the radio on Tuesday that 80% of crime is committed by suspects out on bail. Where exactly that figure was sourced is a complete mystery.

According to CSO figures for 2015, there were over 250,000 incidences of crime, of which around 25,000 were committed by people out on bail. That’s a considerable incidence but represents just 10% of the overall figure.

Still, criminal justice matters are largely about perception rather than reality so it’s understandable that some people think bail is a much bigger issue than it is.

Electronic tagging has had mixed results in other jurisdictions. In England and Wales, there have been a number of controversies with the system amid claims that it has done nothing to reduce the incidence of crime.

In Scotland, it is used more sparingly and exclusively as an alternative to prison for those on remand. The indication of Ms Fitzgerald’s bill is that it will be used not as an alternative to prison for those on remand but an additional measure for those who would not otherwise be incarcerated.

As a measure it has limited application, but hey, all that matters is that it sounds the business. The reality is it will have absolutely no impact but will suffice as a distraction until the next eye-catching measure happens.

Victims of crime are entitled to be treated properly by the State, particularly when the crime involves any element of violence or violation of personal property or space.

Any attempt to properly implement the rights of victims would have given greater urgency to the introduction of the EU Directive on the Rights of Victims.

This directive came into being in 2012 and provides for proper information and representation, including counselling, for victims as a legal right. Only last November was legislation to give effect to the directive published in this country, and even then it was criticised as not fully complying with the directive.

Anybody interested in the plight of victims would be pushing hard for that legislation to be enacted, which remains to be the case. But EU directives are not eye-catching. There is no scope in the directive to demonstrate that criminals are being “taken on”. There is nothing there for the shrill chorus.

One existing measure, if fully implemented, would have a serious impact on deterring crime by those on bail. Judges are mandated to impose consecutive, as opposed to concurrent, sentences on offenders deemed to have offended while on bail. It is unclear how widespread that measure is implemented, but it is certainly the area that deserves most attention.

Apart from that, a properly functioning system would ensure that there is as brief a period as possible between charges being preferred and a trial. Currently, this can take over a year.

Dealing with those issues would have a far greater impact on the incidence of crime by suspects on bail, but maybe it’s just not eye-catching enough to attract the attention of lawmakers or the shrill chorus.


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