For ILR’s first podcast, we interviewed the leading progressive criminologist Dr. Paul O’Mahony. The interview covered a range of topics including the way in which the popular media shapes public perceptions of – and political reactions to – crime, and the effectiveness (or otherwise) of legislation introduced in the wake of journalist Veronica Guerin’s murder in 1996.
Twelve years ago, O’Mahony published an article entitled ‘Punishing Poverty and Personal Adversity‘ in the Irish Criminal Law Journal, and it is clear that the interplay between social exclusion, crime and the manner in which crime is punished continues to inform much of his thinking; certainly the statistics – whether his own 1997 survey of the Mountjoy prison population, or more recent figures showing the background of those appearing before the Children’s Court – bear him out: the overwhelming majority of those prosecuted for, or convicted of, crimes come from a relatively few disadvantaged urban areas and have a number of exclusion indicators in common, ranging from low educational attainment to a history of unemployment and drug misuse.
Against this background, O’Mahony made it clear during the ILR interview that he feels no real attempt has been made to tackle social exclusion in Ireland: much of what has been done is cosmetic – ‘tinkering around the edges’ – and where attempts have been made to regenerate neighbourhoods, crime and its causes have merely been displaced to other disadvantaged areas.
Prison continues to be the sanction of choice in Ireland, and O’Mahony was scathing about both the overuse and the misuse of imprisonment: he pointed out that many people continue to be imprisoned for minor crimes – including the non-payment of civil debt – and that prison merely perpetuates rather than breaks a vicious circle of criminal behaviour. Certainly, Ireland’s high recidivism rates indicate that non-custodial alternative sanctions need to be examined and promoted.
Referring to the reactive nature of criminal justice initiatives, O’Mahony pointed out that legislation – much of which is introduced but never used – is drafted in response to media-generated public pressure, while there is little attempt to record and collate the hard statistics which could provide the basis for an evidence-based response to criminal justice issues.
Despite the ineffectiveness of current responses to crime, O’Mahony sees little cause for optimism that the political establishment – of whatever ideological hue – is about to move away from what he terms a culture of ‘populist punitiveness’.
Photo is by Aidan Crawley and is courtesy of the Irish Times.
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