Tough on crime, soft on the causes of crime

Michael McDowell's crime package represents another failure to deal with social problems and an indifference to the most serious crime phenomenon, sex crime

The latest crime package, announced in serial instalments over 18 months, is depressing. It is as through we have learnt nothing about crime and about crime packages in the last 30 years. The same remedies, or variants of them, hauled out, with the usual accompanying razzmatazz, destined to fail again. Indeed worse than failure, destined to exacerbate the underlying problems.

Among the underlying problems are drug problems.

We have three drug problems: alcohol, tobacco and heroin. Dealing with alcohol involves communicating the message that alcohol destroys the lives of alcohol addicts and that alcohol addition is very prevalent. There is no promotional campaign to communicate this message, no continuing health education to convince addicts, along with their families and friends, of the nature of the problem, the prevalence of it and what has to be done about it. Alcohol is directly linked to much criminality, especially to violent crime and, incidentally, to sex crime.

To be fair there are reasons to believe that we have come to terms with tobacco addition. Not to the extent that is desirable but at least there is a significant fall off in the numbers consuming tobacco and about half those who have ever taken tobacco now no longer do so. It shows what a consistent promotional campaign can achieve.

We do not have a cannabis addition problem. Cannabis causes relatively little harm and then only in a small minority of cases. Neither is cannabis a gateway to the abuse of hard drugs any more than is alcohol and tobacco. The Garda focus on cannabis is a nonsense.

The heroin problem is directly linked with social and economic disadvantage. We have known this for years. And knowing this, efforts have been made to deal with the areas of disadvantage, which are also the areas of hard drug abuse, and yet we have failed to invest anything like enough and often enough.

It is possible to deal with the heroin abuse issue, not through focus on supply – have we not got the message after 20 years that this doesn't work? Simply deal with disadvantage.

Solving the heroin issue would cut crime dramatically. About 40 per cent – at least 40 per cent – of all burglaries, larcenies and robberies are related to heroin abuse (see story on crime on page 14). The rhetoric borrowed from Tony Blair about being "hard on crime and hard on the causes of crime" is bogus, what this always means is "hard on crime and soft on the causes of crime" or, actually, "indifferent to the causes of crime". It doesn't work and it is unjust.

How is it that we are unable to debate rationally the issue of the de-criminalisation of all illicit drugs? Yes, there can be divergent reasonable opinions but how is it that the mere suggestion of decriminalisation causes something akin to a moral panic?

There are difficulties with decriminalisation straight off. The primary difficulty is that were we to take this initiative on our own, it is likely Ireland would be the country of choice for many of Europe's drug-heads. But the issue could be discussed among the EU Council of Ministers dealing with justice and there the arguments could be set out calmly.

Decriminalising illicit drugs would help to bring the health and social problems of drug abuse to the surface. It would also rob crime gangs of the major part of their business. Of course they would seek other outlets, but could anything be as lucrative and relatively risk-free as the illegal drug business, given that the "victims" of drug crime are co-conspirators in the crime? Other crime outlets, such as bank robberies and racketeering, are far more detectable by police forces.

The continuing neglect of the most serious form of criminality here, sex crime, remains disappointing. The hullabaloo that arises periodically over child sex abuse dies down in a few weeks and the issue remains largely ignored, as before. Why can we not have an assault on sex criminality as we did on countering the foot and mouth crisis of some years ago? Are cattle more precious than people?

Aside from these observations, the process whereby a Bill is introduced in the Dail, then left lie for 18 months, then inundated with countless significant amendments and additions, and rushed through the Dail in a few days, is no way to deal with any social phenomenon. Fianna Fail backbenchers (and frontbenchers?), along with the Opposition, should insist on a careful examination of what is proposed and then a measured progress of the Bill through the legislature, taking whatever time it requires.

vincent browne