O’Donoghue’s bad criminal record

9th June 2000

JOHN O’DONOGHUE believes that locking up criminals will reduce crime.

He’s right.

But only if you keep them locked up. Not even John O’Donoghue, arguably the most right-wing Justice Minister in the history of the state, proposes to keep people in jail forever.

So when the criminals get out they go back to crime for prison is notoriously poor at setting wrong-doers back on the right route. The released criminals are also usually a lot more skilled and socialised in their profession.

Very few of the major drug barons or bank robbers that are now media stars have avoided jail. Instead they prospered in there making contacts, gaining reputations, learning from their mistakes.

Jailing young people in particular is disastrous. For the few months relief that incarceration brings to the community they get a criminal for life and someone coming back into the neighbourhood who has a lot more street cred.

In poorer areas jail becomes part of the self-destruct mechanism that we can see at work in the drugs crisis. Crime becomes a sub-culture with its own set of values and heroes. The expansion of the prison system just facilitates this process.

Humans always tend to congregate. Thus book lovers will find one another out. People form associations to fight dumps, to campaign for rights or to play sport.

But no group in our society gets support from the state on the scale that our criminals do.

Instead of trying to get in and break the criminal habit at an early age, this Minister is determined to get his pound of flesh, no matter what the consequences are in the long term.

The probation officer’s union recently said that they were so understaffed that each officer was in charge of up to two hundred offenders. They pointed out that it was impossible to provide an effective programme for released criminals at these ratios.

At the same time they pointed out that the Minister was ignoring all the reports that called for non-custodial means of dealing with young offenders.

Two major concepts have come to the fore over the past ten years that could perhaps allow us to see some light at the end of the tunnel: Restorative justice and zero tolerance.

Restorative justice is the buzz-word among penal reform groups. The idea is that an criminal, typically a young offender, is forced to confront his or her wrongdoing and to make amends to the victim.

It makes a lot of sense. A couple of years back the gardai arrested a man breaking into my garden shed. They led him away and that was the last thing I ever heard about it.

I don’t know if he was charged or convicted but whatever happened to him, he certainly didn’t make any amends to me or to the community.

Contrary to popular opinion many offenders are swayed by public opinion. The process of restorative justice in the community can be sufficiently humiliating to be a deterrent without abandoning the youth to the criminal underworld.

Secondly, Zero Tolerance is something John O’Donoghue has heard about.

Heard about but doesn’t understand. Where zero tolerance is effective is where it concentrates on eliminating ‘quality of life’ crimes in order to change the social environment.

Thus, clamping down on litter and graffiti, increasing community policing, making sure that yobs don’t get away with ‘petty’ offences; all these change the context in which crime flourishes.

It also means supporting civic life in poor communities so that the hoods don’t get the upper hand.

Do any of these policies look like anything John O’Donoghue is doing? He would rather lock up a junkie and spend £100,000 a year to keep him locked up than spend a few grand on treatment and counselling.

His policies are politically cheap but financially and socially expensive; and we’ll be doing the paying.


As well as that…

Clamping Down

News this week of a restructuring of Garda traffic policing in the city that will allow them to clamp down on stuff like people getting out of their cars and leaving their hazards on for an hour, or stuff like double and triple parking.

Perhaps they might like to look at some of the more notorious blackspots for these types of traffic law violations – like Store Street, the top of Pearse Street and around Chancery Street.

Life’s not all tribunals

News also that our barristers are unwilling to move to the court built beside Cloverhill Prison in Palmerstown. Apparently they don’t want to travel between there and their usual haunts around the Four Courts.

Considering the prison and court have been under construction for the last four years or so, you might have expected the Department of Justice to sort this one out before now.

But imagine the cheek of the barristers to come up with this one. Would they prefer convoys of prison vans commuting to the Four Courts all day?

I hope the Government decides to decentralise the lot of them to Cork or Donegal, then they might change their tune on a six mile move to West Dublin.