Hammering home message on how to stop the cycle of crime

If locking people up was the solution, then why have we such a high rate of repeat offenders — so asks Trevor Laffan in his weekly column
Hammering home message on how to stop the cycle of crime

It takes time to reap the rewards of effective community policing, says Trevor Laffan, a former garda with expertise in that area

I HEARD the Master of the High Court, Edmund Honohan, talking on the radio and he was explaining why he used a hammer to smash three panes of glass in his courtroom.

While it is normal for offenders to appear before a judge to answer for their misdemeanours, it’s more unusual for a judge to be explaining himself.

He defended breaking the windows because he said there were issues with ventilation.

He explained that when he leaves his courtroom at the end of the day, it’s closed until he comes in at 10.30am the next morning. By then, the air has turned stale and he is expected to work in that atmosphere.

He claimed that he had been complaining about it for the last ten years, but nothing had been done, and he said it’s unfair to expect people to work in those conditions and it is also unfair on the members of the public to have to suffer.

It was making him feel ill, so he brought a hammer to work with him and smashed three small panes of glass to allow for some ventilation.

While I have some sympathy for the judge, the fact remains that he damaged public property. He brought the hammer with him from home and that would indicate a degree of premeditation, which I’m sure is a factor judges regularly take into consideration when deciding on cases.

Remorse is another factor considered by judges when determining cases and in this instance, the judge has not shown any. In fact, he said he would do it again if he felt it was necessary, but thankfully the matter has since been resolved.

There is a light-hearted side to this story and the idea of a judge breaking windows in his own courtroom is amusing. It worked for him, but the justice system is having other difficulties and not all of them can be solved by swinging a hammer.

Executive Director of the Irish Penal Reform Trust, Deirdre Malone reckons that prisons haven’t a great record for reducing crime and she’s probably right.

If locking people up was the solution, then why have we such a high rate of repeat offenders — 45% of prisoners are convicted of further crimes within three years of being released.

Malone said there needs to be a focus on stopping the cycle of crime at an early stage by investing in drug treatment and supports in communities.

She’s correct, of course, and part of that support should include investment in Garda Juvenile Diversion Programmes and Community Policing, but these have long been considered ‘soft’ policing options by senior garda management. They were never properly resourced or given serious consideration and now there are consequences.

Cormac O’Keeffe reported in the Irish Examiner that the Garda Commissioner Drew Harris came in for a lot of stick when it was discovered that gardaí failed to prosecute almost 8,000 criminal offences by juveniles over an eight-year period.

The Garda Juvenile Diversion Programme is designed to engage with young offenders at an early stage and hopefully divert them from committing further crimes and thereby keeping them on the straight and narrow. In simple terms, they are given a chance to avoid having a criminal conviction recorded against them.

Presumably, many of the culprits in these cases were originally recommended to be dealt with by caution under this programme but were subsequently found not to be eligible, either because they were over age or they weren’t co-operating, or maybe the crimes were determined to be too serious. The vast majority were repeat offenders.

These cases should have been followed up with prosecutions in court because they were deemed unsuitable for the Garda Youth Diversion Programme, but this didn’t happen.

An internal garda review of juvenile offences found 7,900 of them were not prosecuted because of garda inaction between 2010 and 2017.

I have commented on some of the failings of garda management previously and my criticism upset some in An Garda Siochana, but the truth is often painful.

Whether they like to hear it or not, the fact remains that community policing and the juvenile diversion programme were considered as side shows to the main event and were never fully supported — mainly because they are long term strategies and don’t provide a quick fix.

It takes time to reap the rewards of effective community policing initiatives and youth diversion programmes. Immediate solutions are better for the figures, better for the media, and ultimately better for the promotion prospects.

Crime detection was always considered to be the main discipline and absorbed the greater amount of resources. That’s fair enough, because detecting crime is a major function of any police force and that’s how it should be. An Garda Siochana has a long and successful history in that department.

But there is room for the other sections in the Force to play an important role too, a fact that was lost on the powers that be.

Community policing was always the first casualty when there was a manpower shortage.

In response to the lack of prosecutions, Bob Collins of the Policing Authority said that, notwithstanding the succession of other Garda controversies in recent years, this scandal is “the most serious” the authority has dealt with.

Garda Commissioner Harris apologised to the Policing Authority and said there is now a “consideration of discipline” and the mass disciplinary examination was an “extraordinary step” for him to take but accepts that there were both individual and organisational failings.

I had been complaining about the lack of resources and organisational failings for years, but maybe they would have paid more attention if I had just asked Judge Holohan for a loan of his hammer and paid a visit to the Phoenix Park instead!

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