Tough on crime and indifferent to its causes

The vast preponderance of criminality about which the Irish public is now agitated is crime emanating from working class areas . These crimes are burglaries, larcenies, drug crime and what is known as "organised crime", which has involved a serious of high-profile murders.

A great number of these crimes is related to drugs. People steal for they need money to fund their drug addition. A vast criminal trade has grown up around the importation, distribution and sale of drugs and that is what "organised crime" is mainly about.

Of course there is criminality outside the drugs trade, including the smuggling of diesel from Northern Ireland, the importation of cigarettes and the like, but these crimes have to do primarily with defrauding the exchequer and all the rest of criminality involving defrauding the exchequer doesn't rate even a listing in the Garda annual crime statistics (they say this is because the Garda do not have responsibility for the detection and prosecution of tax criminality but wouldn't one think they would incorporate such statistics, obtained from the Revenue Commissioners, in the annual report on crime? Or at least make a reference to the fact that such criminality is not listed?).

We favour the decriminalisation of illicit drugs and the management of the drugs problem by social and medical means. But, clearly, at present none of the political parties have the nerve to go with that one and the resultant accusation that they favour the damage drugs cause.

So what to do? The answer is simple. Deal with the social and economic problems in the areas where hard-drug abuse is most prevalent. Deal with early school-leaving on a comprehensive basis. Train young people in disadvantaged areas to enable them get jobs. Incentivise them to get and retain jobs. Allow them to retain social welfare payments for a while, as they get used to the jobs market. Provide social workers in the disadvantaged areas to focus particularly on potentially delinquent young people.

As the demand for drugs drops, the business of organised gangs will fall away. True there is a growing demand among the middle classes for cocaine and that is keeping the "crime bosses" in business. But if the stuff were legally available wouldn't it make a difference to that business and, accompanied by the kind of health warnings that have accompanied the legal sale of tobacco, the consumption could be stabilised and reduced?

There are of course the band of "ordinary criminals" who are not reliant on the drugs trade but who nonetheless are engaged in their felonious little plans. But these too, in the main, are drawn into crime because of social deprivation and if that were dealt with, the problem would subside. There would remain a substrata for whom petty criminality is a tradition but, surely, we can rely on the Garda to deal with that?

So a focused attack on disadvantaged areas – and by attack we do not mean the word in the PD vernacular but in the sense of targeting deprivation in these areas – could have spectacular results on crime in a way that the rafts of criminal statutes don't and can't.

As Ian O'Donnell makes plain in his analysis of the Criminal Justice Bill (page 14), the major deterrent to criminality is not the maximum of sentence that applies to particular crimes but the likelihood of being caught. The problem here is that, as such a high proportion of crime is related to the drugs trade, detection rates are certain to be very low because, in one facet at least, the victim and the criminal are in cahoots. The victim being the drug taker, the criminal being the drug dealer. This makes drug related crime different to any other form of criminality and so difficult to detect.

There is a real crime problem aside from that: the epidemic of sex crime, tax fraud, and insider trade fraud. But those excited about the scale of criminality are not interested at all, it seems, in real criminality.

Vincent Browne