We must tackle repeat offenders if we're serious about curbing crime rates
Published 01/10/2015 | 02:30
Crime is a vastly complex phenomenon. Different crimes have different causes. Why crime rates change over time is highly contested.
What is not contested is that some crimes in Ireland have been on the rise. Earlier this week the latest figures showed that although some offences are down, others are up. Burglaries are among the crimes that are rising. In each of the past seven quarters there has been a rise on the same period in the previous year. In the 12 months to June, close to 30,000 cases were recorded.
Burglaries occur more frequently in the dark winter months, and last winter the annual increase was well into double digits. With nights closing in, the coming winter will see the highest number of home break-ins on record if current trends continue.
Before considering the latest bad news, and proposing some solutions, it is worth reflecting on the very good news over the long run. Cold comfort it may be to those who bear the scars of crime, but we live in relatively pacified times.
However serious crime and fear of crime is today, our ancestors throughout almost all of human history lived with much higher levels of violence and threat of violence. Life used to be nasty, brutish and short, and the once fashionable notion that man lived a tranquil and peaceful life in some idyllic past has been thoroughly debunked. The hard evidence is that the distance past was very violent, but over time human societies have become more ordered and peaceful. Laws and better law enforcement have played an important role in what has been called the "civilising process".
In Ireland today the overwhelming majority of citizens respect the law and don't break it. Only the tiniest minority commit serious and/or violent offences. But that minority imposes enormous suffering on many people, most particularly for victims, but also on the much larger group who live in fear that they will be next.
There is a certain sniffiness among metropolitan sophisticates about this issue, as if talking about crime and measures to curb it was in some way reactionary. While there are, of course, people whose instinct is that hanging and flogging is too good for criminals, most people simply want proportionate measures to be in place to protect the majority from the tiny criminal minority.
Today this column proposes two such measures: longer prison sentences for those who offend repeatedly; and the introduction of curfews as punishment, rather than incarceration, for non-violent and non-invasive crimes.
Earlier this year the Government published a draft law aimed at serial burglars. The bill does not go far enough.
Repeat offending - or "recidivism" in the jargon of criminologists - accounts for a great deal of crime. Targeting hard-core recidivists is therefore an important aspect of any crime-reduction strategy. One way of doing that is "enhanced sentencing", whereby the more crimes a person commits, the more time is added to their jail term with each fresh conviction.
The concept of enhanced sentencing has got a bad name because some US states, most notably California, have grossly disproportionate versions of it - on a third conviction, a life sentence is handed down, even if one or more of the three offences is relatively minor. A much more proportionate version would kick in after a higher number of offences - perhaps seven or 10 - to target really hard-core recidivists, and it would add additional prison time in a graduated way.
For example, on the tenth conviction, an additional number of months would start to be added to the sentence for each previous conviction.
It is in no way disproportionate to suggest that people who commit many violent and invasive offences be incarcerated for long periods of time to stop the very high probability that they will make victims of others.
Unfortunately, we are a very long way from even being able to consider such a change. While a lot is known about the prison population, remarkably, we don't know how many previous convictions each person has. What is known about people's criminal record is compiled in an unsystematic way when someone is being sentenced.
As is frequently reported, some offenders have dozens of previous convictions. At the very least, the systematic collection of such data should be undertaken so that the extent of recidivists' role in crime can be better understood.
Today's second suggestion is that we follow most of our peer countries in introducing curfews and electronic tagging while at the same time reducing the range of crimes for which custodial sentencing is used.
Curfews elsewhere work by confining those who have been convicted to their homes and allowing them to leave only for work and emergencies. If they break the curfew the electronic tag alerts those who are tasked with monitoring them.
The benefits of imposing curfews include cost reduction - keeping people locked up is hugely expensive - and the freeing up of space in jails for hard-core reoffenders.
Imprisoning people, including for offences such as the non-payment of fines, is disproportionate and has happened traditionally because justice systems could not come up with a better last-resort measure. But changes in technology allowing electronic tags to track the movement of those sentenced to curfew has changed that.
Ireland has lagged behind most other jurisdictions in Western Europe, including the other jurisdiction on this island, in introducing curfews and tagging.
Although legislation has made provision for its use, it has hardly been used in practice.
It is past time that the use of curfews and tagging be rolled out rapidly and widely in the fight against crime.