Locking them up
In July 2010 the Irish prison population was 4,473, up from 3,926 a year earlier. This was a rather dramatic increase of 14 per cent, and results in Ireland having 99 prisoners per 100,000 population. But by international standards that is not huge: England has 148 per 100,000, Scotland has 134, the United States a whopping 737. Germany has 94 per 100,000, Norway has 66, and India has a mere 30.
Penal policy in most countries is shockingly unenlightened, and is more often than not based on prejudice, backwardness, ignorance and intolerance. Politicians press for custodial sentences for all sorts of conduct in the (probably correct) belief that this plays well with voters. In the meantime, prisons are often unpleasant overcrowded crime academies that turn minor delinquents into hardened criminals who will pop in and out of prison for much of their lives, causing havoc during their periods of liberty.
In addition, we manage to put people in prison who are of absolutely no danger to the public (or at least, aren’t until we get them in there, after which all bets are off). It is amazing that we have still used prisons to punish people who cannot pay fines, though thankfully the Law Reform Commission in Ireland has recommended that this insane practice should stop.
It is good also that the current Conservative/LibDem administration in the UK is giving some thought to this issue, with the Justice Secretary Ken Clarke suggesting that for many people prison does not work – something that would have been regarded as heresy in the Conservative Party until very recently (and perhaps still is).
But for all of us, the world over, we need to understand the limits of custodial punishment, and its social impact. We need to grasp the obvious truth that sections of the population that are disaffected and feel they have no stake in society represent the most significant risk to good order and public safety, and that locking away the most difficult members of this group actually makes everything worse. Addressing that is where the priority should lie.
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