- Progress in the Penal System (PIPS) - https://pips.iprt.ie -

1.1 Accountability in the penal system (2019)

IPRT’s vision is of a penal system where the people who cause harm are held accountable in a way that does not cause further harm; where the penal system is held accountable for minimising the harmful effects of detention; and where society is also held accountable for failing to address the social injustice, inequalities and trauma that underlie so much offending behaviour.

Holding the penal system to account means asking whether it is achieving justice, repairing harm and contributing to safer communities.[4] A penal system that locks up too many people for too long in crowded prison conditions does not achieve justice, repair harm or enhance community safety.

Research from Ireland on what victims need from the criminal justice system is scarce. However, international research finds that crime survivors want the criminal justice system to focus more on rehabilitating people than punishing them, and to support a range of non-custodial alternative approaches; these were the findings of a recent US national survey, by a margin of two to one, in order “to stop the cycle of crime and protect future generations from falling through the cracks”.[5] The survey also found that, by a margin of three to one, victims prefer holding people accountable through options beyond prison, such as community sanctions, mental health treatment and drug treatment.[6]

Other research finds that crime victims do not equate accountability with confinement; instead, they want a justice system built around a set of principles that focuses on rehabilitation, victim safety and the provision of ample services to both victim and offender.[7] It is critical that we keep this in mind when considering the meaning of accountability in the penal system. More broadly, there has been no recent survey on the characteristics of the prison population in Ireland nor how society perceives crime, punishment or victimisation.

Holding people to account can be done through other approaches, for example, restorative justice. Another way of making the system itself more accountable and communities safer is through justice reinvestment; examples of the latter include diverting money into crime prevention, early intervention and diversion programmes in order to address the causes of crime in communities where there is a high concentration of offending.[8]

Effective systems of accountability are essential to a functioning penal system. This includes robust systems of independent oversight to ensure human rights abuses do not occur behind prison walls; it also requires that the safety of prisoners and staff is strengthened through nurturing a culture that openly encourages trusted complaints mechanisms, which reduce tension on prison landings.

Above all, accountability in the penal system matters because punishing people is done in our name. For this reason, we must ensure a transparent and fair penal system. The system should provide us, the general public, with a clear insight into the penal system. This can only be achieved by having robust accountability structures in place. Only through this can we, the general public, question, challenge and hold to account bodies within the penal system.