Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Tackling Anti-social behaviour - a points system?

Plenty of coverage in the media in the past week regarding drink-fuelled anti-social behaviour, ranging from drunken revelry to rioting to serious assault. Today’s Irish Examiner quotes CSO figures that show a 57% rise in Public Order Offences in the past 5 years.

There’s a growing frustration among the majority of peaceful citizens that the minority can apparently engage in persistent anti-social behaviour and petty crime, without fear of falling foul of the justice system.

The current system seems to be incapable of dealing with many such offences, which may be individually relative minor, but which can make life intolerable for others and which may also lead the perpetrators to become more and more out of control, leading ultimately to more serious offences.

It’s quite understandable that the gardai are reluctant to take legal action in the majority of cases of anti-social behaviour. Scarce garda resources would be tied up in paper-work and court appearances, the court system would be jammed up, while the perpetrators would generally walk away with a slap on the wrist. Young offenders are well aware of the limits and the slim possibility that they’ll receive a custodial sentence and, indeed, the age limits which apply to such sentences.

Possible Solution - The Points System

However, we already have a system, currently applied to a different area of the legal code, which might provide a template for a revised approach to anti-social behaviour and petty crime.

The Points System targets drivers for offences which, individually, would not merit disqualification from driving. However, persistent offenders will accumulate points within a 3-year period and are likely to be ultimately disqualified from driving.
In addition, fines are levied each time such points are awarded. It is possible to appeal the imposition of points for an offence through the courts, but unsuccessful cases trigger a doubling of the penalties, essentially to deter people from wasting garda and court time.
A further financial penalty is likely to be incurred, as annual motor insurance will probably prove to be more expensive, even though the offender hasn’t yet reached the disqualification points level.

It should be possible to create a schedule of appropriate “public order offences”, each with a standard tariff, both financial and penalty point, which can be applied as a “spot fine” by the gardai.

Offenders will accumulate points for each offence and, on reaching a pre-determine level, will face a custodial sentence or other appropriate punitive measure.

Points will lapse after a 3-4 year period.
Unpaid fines will be deducted from any social welfare payments made to the offender, or his/her family if no direct payment is being made to the offender.

I see the main benefits of such a scheme as being:
1. Gardai can take immediate action, imposing fines and penalty points, without having to jam up the court system.
2. The cumulative effect of points makes any public order offence potentially one which will result in a custodial sentence for persistent offenders.
3. The carrying forward of points over a number of years creates a mecahnism for dealing with more juvenile offenders, who currently know that they are too young to face a custodial sentence.
4. Imposing unpaid fines on family welfare incomes will, hopefully, concentrate parents on taking more responsibility for the actions of their “dependant” children.

Footnote: published as a (very long) letter in the Irish Examiner. Also, a sizeable extract aired by Pat Kenny on RTE. I've also emailed it to Charlie Flanagan, FG's Justice spokesman, who has acknowledged it and promised to give it due consideration.

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