Public 'does not want harsher jail terms'

Politicians demanding harsh prison sentences for criminals are out of step with public opinion, campaigners claimed today.

A new survey suggests there is widespread support for drug addicts, mentally ill convicts and non-violent offenders to receive treatment and retraining instead of jail sentences.

The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) which lobbies for prisoners’ rights and progressive reform of penal policy says the vast majority of people are ahead of politicians on tackling the causes of crime.

“This research shows clearly that the Irish electorate has a much more sophisticated understanding of crime and punishment issues than they are given credit for by the main political parties or by much of the media,” said IPRT executive director Rick Lines.

“It also shows that public concern about crime in no way translates into widespread demand for the types of knee-jerk ’get tough’ policies being pedalled by the Government and main Opposition parties in the run up to the election.

“In fact just the opposite is the case.”

The TNS/MRBI poll interviewed a representative sample of 1,000 adults during January 2007 on issues related to the prison system.

The poll reveals that when given a choice of how to deal with non-violent offenders – who the IPRT says make up over 80% of committals to Irish prisons each year – respondents preferred to divert them away from prison and into drug treatment programmes, mental health programmes or community service.

The IPRT says its poll also reveals voters of all political parties question the use of prisons as the best way to deal with crime.

The survey found that:

:: 91% of respondents believe offenders with mental illness should be treated in a mental health facility instead of being sent to prison.

:: 81% believe offenders with a drug addiction should be placed in drug recovery programmes instead of serving a prison sentence.

:: 74% are in favour of using alternatives to prison when dealing with young offenders.

:: 66% of respondents believe that people come out of prison worse than they go in.

:: 54% disagree with the statement that ’increasing prison numbers will reduce crime’.

:: 44% agree criminalising drug use causes more problems than it prevents. Only 28% disagreed.

Mr Lines said: “By wide margins, voters of all political persuasions see prison as a failed response to dealing with most crime, do not prioritise building additional prison spaces as a strategy to tackle crime and, when given a choice, would prefer to see non-violent offenders, who constitute the vast majority of committals each year, diverted out of prisons altogether and into non-custodial programmes and supervision that engage the root causes of the offending or make reparations to victims.

“Politicians often claim that their calls for ever harsher penalties and ever bigger prisons are based upon public demand for such measures. This research exposes the fallacy of that position.”

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