Why do we have so few people in jail in Ireland?

15 October, 2009

Two related news pieces….

Firstly, according to the Irish Times this morning, the number of prisoners in Irish jails has passed 4,000 for the first time in the history of the State, based on new Irish Prison Services figures.

Secondly, a “career criminal” who preyed on elderly people alone in their homes has been given an eight-year jail sentence, according to The Irish Independent  (13th October 2009).   Alice Connors (36) apparently had 86 (yes, 86) previous convictions — including 22 burglaries  — with victims aged from 60 to 84 years.  One is tempted to ask why somebody who has racked up so many convictions by the age of 36 was still at large.

 These reports set me thinking again about an issue that has always intrigued me. 

According to the World Prison Population List, for every 100,000 of population, Ireland in December 2008 had 76 people in prison (although presumably it is a bit higher today).  This compares with twice this number (153)  in England and Wales and no less than 756 in the United States.  These differences are dramatic.  But what causes them?

The possible contributory factors might be analysed along these lines:

  • We have a lower overall crime rate in Ireland
  • Serious crimes are a lower percentage of the total crime rate
  • We have a lower detection/prosecution rate
  • We have a lower conviction rate following trial
  • For a given crime, prison sentences are less likely to be handed down, as opposed to fines or suspended sentences.
  • Prison sentences handed down for similar offences are shorter
  • Prisoners are allowed out earlier relative to length of sentence (eg for good behaviour)

I suspect all of these factors play a part in Ireland.

As for the reasons for the very high US figures for prison population, I recommend  an article in the New York Times last year, from which these quotes are taken:

…the United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population. But it has almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners. …..

It has 751 people in prison or jail for every 100,000 in population. (If you count only adults, one in 100 Americans is locked up.)    The only other major industrialized nation that even comes close is Russia, with 627 prisoners for every 100,000 people. The others have much lower rates. England’s rate is 151; Germany’s is 88; and Japan’s is 63.  The median among all nations is about 125, roughly a sixth of the American rate………  

Criminologists and legal experts point to a tangle of factors to explain America’s extraordinary incarceration rate: higher levels of violent crime, harsher sentencing laws, a legacy of racial turmoil, a special fervor in combating illegal drugs, the American temperament, and the lack of a social safety net. Even democracy plays a role, as judges — many of whom are elected, another American anomaly — yield to populist demands for tough justice…..

The spike in American incarceration rates is quite recent. From 1925 to 1975, the rate remained stable, around 110 people in prison per 100,000 people. It shot up with the movement to get tough on crime in the late 1970s…..

American prison stays are much longer, so the total incarceration rate is higher.   Burglars in the United States serve an average of 16 months in prison, according to Mauer, compared with 5 months in Canada and 7 months in England.

The elderly victims of Alice Connors have suffered great trauma and loss.  I cannot help feeling that our reluctance to send people to jail for appropriately long sentences is resulting in some very sad outcomes.  No doubt the United States is extreme in its approach to sending people to jail; but we need to consider further whether, here in Ireland, an incarceration rate which is half that of England and Wales is objectively too low.  I don’t know the answer, but it certainly needs investigation.

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2 Responses to “Why do we have so few people in jail in Ireland?”


  1. […] As I have noted previously, we in Ireland have proportionately only half as many people in jail as in the United Kingdom, and only one tenth as many as in the United States.    I suspect that Ireland and the USA represent two extremes of how to approach the problem;  I doubt our crime rate is one-tenth of theirs, just as I doubt our crime rate is half that of the United Kingdom.  So who’s right? […]


  2. […] it any wonder we have so few people in jail?  See this post. (England and Wales have proportionately twice as many people in […]


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