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Mandatory sentencing of criminals 'an expensive mistake'

Published 16/06/2016

The mandatory sentencing of criminals is a waste of money, according to senior law lecturer Dr Claire Hamilton
The mandatory sentencing of criminals is a waste of money, according to senior law lecturer Dr Claire Hamilton

Ireland is in danger of repeating the 'mistaken' prison experiment of the US by locking up more criminals for longer, researchers have warned.

Ireland's jail population has grown to about 4,000 since the mid-1990s - an increase of more than one third - with criminologists blaming hardline policies sparked by the murders of journalist Veronica Guerin and Detective Garda Jerry McCabe, 20 years ago this month.

But Dr Claire Hamilton, senior law lecturer at Maynooth University, said mandatory sentencing is a proven and costly mistake.

"It does not work. It is a waste of money and it was an expensive mistake," she said.

"Ireland would do well to heed these lessons. However, it seems that, despite the clear evidence that policies such as mandatory sentencing do not work and calls to scrap them by the Law Reform Commission, the current administration is reluctant to abandon the policy."

The Irish Prison Service has counted 3,778 inmates in custody.

It costs about 70,000 euro to imprison someone for a year - a 280 million euro bill in total.

Ireland has mandatory life sentences for murder which in general means killers serve 17-20 years in jail. There are also minimum 10-year sentences for serious drugs and firearms offences and tariffs set down in law for repeated serious offences, such as threats to kill, false imprisonment and aggravated burglary.

Dr Hamilton said these "tough on crime" tactics - some of which were adopted to combat o rganised crime in the late 1990s and the Limerick underworld 10 years later - are now big drivers of the prison population, but have no effect on crime rates.

"Crime in the US has not gone away. It is still there. Crime rates and prison rates are independent of one another. You don't increase the rate of imprisonment and decrease the crime rate. It's not that simple," she said.

Dr Hamilton issued the warning ahead of next week's 10th annual North South Criminology Conference at Maynooth, when the Handbook of Irish Criminology with its reviews of theory, research, policy and practice will be launched.

She pointed to the war on drugs and the practice of life meaning life, which has seen America's incarceration levels escalate dramatically from 120 in every 100,000 people to almost 700.

She also said there should be no tension between the rights of victims and calls to abandon mandatory sentencing.

"What I want to see here is the recognition that the punitive route is not one that we should go down. It is in effect a failure. It does not work. It is not evidence-based," she said.

Dr Hamilton said lawmakers should look at adopting other initiatives such as electronic tagging, more drug courts, therapeutic services and restorative justice, some of which will address the underlying causes of crime rather than simply punishing an offender.

"It's about being effective. You want to put in place measures that will work," she said.

"Ultimately it's to the benefit of society if these offenders desist from crime. Unless you go down the US route of sentencing people for life meaning life these people are going to come out at some point."

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