An Phoblacht 2 - 2022 small

20 March 1997 Edition

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Zero sums

The electorate should have little tolerance for another round of ranting from the political parties on crime, writes Rita O'Reilly

In the run up to the general election in the 26 Counties, we're going to hear a lot about crime. The latest catch phrase is `zero tolerance', a newish name for an old idea.

Zero tolerance outposts in the USA and Britain have been sending good news messengers out to tell the world that a little less tolerance goes a long way.

It certainly does. Behind every zero tolerance advocate is another hundred prison places. Take Fianna Fail, for example. Their zero tolerance troubadour, John O'Donoghue says Fianna Fail will recruit an additional 1,200 Gardai and create an extra 2,000 prison places once it's in government. That's on top of the existing 2,200 places.

It is estimated that the prison building program alone will cost £340 million, while the budget will have to include an extra £92 million per year to lock up the new petty criminals. Oddly enough, last time Fianna Fail were in government, in 1992, the total prisons' budget was £92 million. Oddly enough also, amongst those locked up under this budget were a total of 2,255 people sentenced for minor offences including debt, drunkenness, traffic and fisheries offences. In that same year, as heroin abuse statistics soared, the budget provision to stop drug abuse in the Dublin area was a mere £1 million; approaching zero in effect.

In 1997, the link between deprivation and drug addiction is well established in Ireland. The high proportion of prisoners who are addicted to dangerous drugs has also been well exposed. Yet, in 1997 in the 26 Counties, Fianna Fail still want to build more prisons. They're not alone. The Progressive Democrats, Fianna Fail's government partners in 1992, also advocate zero tolerance and also want to build more prisons. Fine Gael wants to build more prisons but can't get around to it at the moment. Labour wants to do whatever the rest are doing but wants to pretend it's not doing it. The Democratic Left want to stay in government.

There is not a political party in Leinster House with more than one TD which isn't content to throw huge amounts of their electorate's money at imprisoning and punishing increasingly greater numbers of people.

The incarceration business is certainly a lucrative one, as even a cursory glance at the booming state security industry in the Six Counties shows. But nowhere is this more evident than in the United States, where the zero tolerance philosophy is continuing to flourish. Take the California experience. Since 1992, the prison population in that state has risen by 50%. The cost of keeping people imprisoned rose by $100 billion in the same period to a cool budget total of $3.6 billion this year. And is this stopping people commit crime? Not a bit of it: recidivism, the number of people relapsing into crime, is far higher there than in most other US states.

So whatever zero tolerance and creating more prison places is about, it's not about reducing crime.

If the current measure of crime policy was not on the basis of tolerance but on the basis of performance, all of the Leinster House government contenders would score zero every time. For example, between 1992 and the killing of journalist Veronica Guerin, the sum total of major drug criminals prosecuted for tax evasion was zero. Since the killing of Guerin, the number of major drug criminals charged by the Garda is not one. Both John Gilligan and Thomas Mullen face charges in London, having left Ireland with the full knowledge of Gardai. Other big drug dealers have left the country, some as recently as this last month. The number of drug dealers legally evicted through the courts from local authority housing so far is nought. The sum total of assets of drug criminals successfully seized so far by the Criminal Assets Bureau is not a dot.

With this extraordinary record of failure it might seem appropriate for the establishment parties to switch policies. But there is no sign of that. Instead, the main political parties are looking to escape their responsibility for the social and economic deprivation which feeds crime and drug abuse. Their getaway vehicle is `zero tolerance'. Far from targetting big criminal interests, they want to blame big crime on little criminals. If they get away with it, then after the cars have gone around the track a few times and in a few different ways, the sparks will settle and we'll all find ourselves on the same roundabout.

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