In February 2007, the Minister for Justice Michael McDowell made a pre-election promise to have 15,000 Gardaí by the end of 2008. This he managed but since then the size of the force has been declining and now numbers 12,816 (31/12/2015). The election has brought all kinds of promises from the parties, who all talk about setting Garda numbers at pre-crisis levels. Up until this week, Fianna Fáil said they would set the force’s strength at 14,000 and ‘maintain at optimal level’; on Monday, in light of the violence last week, the party put out a press release and in it stated the force would reach 15,000. Meanwhile, the Government parties plan to have 1,800 extra police by 2021 – putting the force at about 14,500.
All of these figures are arbitrary. In 2008, there were 285 people per Garda; in 2015, there were 360 people per Garda. From the start of the crash until now, the number of people an average Garda has to care for increased by 20%. Our police force declined and our population grew. So to get back on par with 2008, and accounting for population changes, we would have had 16,265 Gardaí on the 31 December 2015 – 3,400 more than what we actually had. Other proposals put forward by the parties include a centralised neighbourhood watch programme and more restorative justice for victims (FF), abolishing the Special Criminal Court (SF), setting up a second Special Criminal Court (Gov/FF), mobile policing units (Renua), and better IT infrastructure and corporate governance (Social Democrats).
While some of these ideas are progressive, they ignore the role of recidivism and how best to prevent it. In December the CSO published an analysis of re-offending rates for offenders released in 2009. They found that about 47.5% reoffended within three years, 80% of whom reoffended within a year. Of those imprisoned for burglary, 70% reoffended within three years. One likely cause for this is the stretched capacity of our Probation Service. In 2014, it employed only 216 probation officers, who dealt with over 15,000 offenders within the community. At any one time, about 6,500 offenders are actively engaged with. An average probation officer therefore has an on-going caseload of 30. Of those, 89% will be likely to misuse drugs and/or alcohol. As such, these individuals need additional social and counselling support on top of the support of a probation officer.
But instead of solving these problems and reducing the allure of crime, our political system is biased toward increasing detection and then imprisonment, at a cost of €65,000 per prisoner. This creates a cycle: we don’t solve recidivism, crime goes up, we hire more police, we don’t solve recidivism, crime goes up, we hire more police. And so on.
The parties are missing the point. There is more to preventing crime than purely police numbers. And if they choose to focus on numbers, they aren’t accounting for population growth. Meanwhile, they choose not to adopt policies that highlight the need for – and importance of – probation officers and social workers. This is a huge missed opportunity that makes clear the narrow focus our politicians give to policy development.
Note: Ideally we would compare Ireland’s recidivism rate with those of other countries – in this case countries identify recidivism differently.