Analysis: research and experience elsewhere have highlighted effective and innovative responses to offending and victimisation

Most people go through their daily routines without questioning how the criminal justice system operates in their country. Yet the biggest myth in criminal justice is that the existing response to crime is the natural or only way of doing things.

But as comparative research in this field continues to grow, we must remember that we cannot simply transplant something from one country to another and there are limits to such policy transfers. However, we can always look to innovations and reforms abroad to help us consider what might be possible and effective at home.

Here are some promising developments from which Ireland might learn as we seek to construct a smarter and more effective and humane response to offending and victimisation.

Dealing with serious and persistent adult offenders

We know that diversion is usually more effective than prosecution at reducing reoffending among young people. But there is also growing evidence that rigorous diversionary projects can help support desistance from crime among more serious and persistent adult offenders.

For example, Checkpoint from the Durham Constabulary in the UK involves adults agreeing to a four-month programme tailored to each person and informed by evidence on desistance from crime. It can include participating in restorative justice and undertaking various mental health, alcohol and drug treatments. Prosecution is deferred and the person avoids a conviction if they complete the programme.

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Reformed addict Michelle talks about the Checkpoint project changed her life

Checkpoint is designed to work with more serious and persistent adult offenders. For example, it recently expanded to include people who sell heroin, if they do so only to feed their own habit. Its effectiveness in reducing reoffending, as evidenced by interim findings from a recent randomised control trial, has inspired similar approaches elsewhere in England.

In Ireland, adult cautions allow people to avoid a conviction if it is not in the public interest to prosecute. This is a crucial part of our system: most adult offending is low-level and committed by young adults, for whom a criminal record can be highly damaging. Yet, the lack of evidence-based interventions available alongside adult cautions means that there are limited opportunities effectively to divert more serious or persistent offenders, for whom prosecution might fail to resolve – or even entrench – their problems. Researchers have made similar arguments in relation to youth diversion in Ireland: we should target our diversionary resources at those with the most complex needs.

Support for victims of intimate partner violence

Intimate partner violence remains an enormous problem in Irish society. The Irish Times recently reported that current or former male partners were responsible for killing 56% of women who died violently since 1996, and whose cases have been solved.

Some people argue that western societies are treating intimate partner violence, among other neglected forms of gender-based violence, increasingly seriously. Yet, as in many countries, the policies and services in Ireland that could support the survivors of these offences are lagging behind this cultural change.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, Della Kilroy reports on why Women's Aid say the criminal justice system is failing victims of domestic violence

As the Irish government passes legislation and seeks new ways to support victims, we might look to New Zealand, which recently followed the Philippines and parts of Canada in introducing paid leave for victims of domestic violence. The parliamentarian responsible for this bill described it as a crucial part of a "whole-of-society response". Researchers and activists are now also pushing for social housing providers and even doctors and dentists to recognise the role they can play in responding to intimate partner violence.

Restorative justice

Restorative justice is a voluntary process through which victims and offenders can communicate with each other, with the help of a trained facilitator. Research indicates that this can reduce reoffending and help victims recover from crime. On these grounds, a recent European legal instrument declared that restorative justice should be a "generally available service".

New Zealand has a legal requirement to offer restorative justice in between conviction and sentencing, and funds NGOs to deliver it throughout the country and justice process. In Europe, Norway and Finland have statutory restorative justice services, while Belgium has regional NGOs and a legal requirement that prosecutors consider it as a diversion from court for most young offenders. 

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Today With Sean O'Rourke Show, a discussion on restorative justice with the mother of a crime victim Denise McAuley and director of the Centre for Innovative Justice at RMIT University in Australia, Rob Hulls

Yet the majority of victims and offenders in Ireland have neither the information nor the opportunity to determine whether restorative justice is right for them. Ireland might consider developing its capacity to deliver it in the parts of the country or criminal justice process where this does not happen, and creating a legal requirement to make the offer to victims and offenders.

A "Truth Project" for institutional abuses

Institutional victimisation pervades Irish social history. From the Magdalene Laundries and clerical sexual abuse, to Mother and Baby Homes, these are experiences which still affect many in Ireland today.

Earlier in 2019, the government published a consultation with survivors of abuse in residential institutions, the minister noting that it is time "to begin a process of engagement about how [their] needs can be met". One innovation we might explore is the Truth Project, an official arm of the UK’s Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. This offers survivors the opportunity to provide testimony in private. Their testimony does not feed into a legal process, but does inform the inquiry’s recommendations. The project then refers the participants to whichever services they require to meet their individual needs.

The unfortunate reality is that, for many reasons, some past abuses will never be successfully prosecuted. This is why we should explore what other countries do in their efforts to meet victims’ needs, especially in cases where nobody is convicted.

Greater collaboration between justice and mental health services

A large proportion of those who offend persistently or seriously suffer from mental illness or poor mental health. Yet, much of Ireland lacks both the community-based mental health services that can help prevent offending, and the partnership working between justice and health services needed to respond effectively and appropriately when people do offend.

In the UK, the National Health Service (NHS), police and other agencies now recognise the need for greater collaboration on this issue. To support this, the NHS recently funded the Liaison and Diversion programme. This aims to reduce reoffending and health inequalities by identifying suspects and offenders with mental health issues (and other vulnerabilities) as early as possible, and diverting or referring them to healthcare interventions. An initial evaluation found that enhanced partnership working helped increase the number of vulnerable persons identified in police custody. A full evaluation, exploring the programme’s impact on justice and health outcomes, is due later this year.

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A report by NHS England on the Liaison and Diversion programme

More evidence is needed to establish precisely how health and justice services can collaborate to support those with mental health problems who come into contact with the criminal justice process. But again, by observing what has happened in other countries, we need not start from an entirely blank slate.  

The benefits of a comparative perspective

We usually turn to the criminal justice process – and its capacity to punish – in the expectation that this is the most effective way to keep us safe from crime. Exploring what works in other countries can help us to recognise the limits of this approach and consider what else we might do to prevent or respond to harm. No country can ever meet the needs of all the victims and offenders within its borders. But smart countries will always study different practices and innovations elsewhere to inform changes at home.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ