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Release prisoners: Fantasy or opportunity?

Pope Francis has asked countries throughout the world to show mercy to people in prison, going as far as to ask governments to let out those who have met necessary conditions but not yet served their full sentence. Francis’ call of compassion came at a special event for prisoners which hosted 1,000 detainees from 12 countries as well as their families, prison chaplains and prison staff. The event comes as the Catholic Church’s ‘Jubilee Year of Mercy’ comes to an end.

Language like ‘mercy’ is tricky, a word more accustomed to the 1800s than the 21st Century. It can be understood as patriarchal and something only the powerful can bestow on others, such as the priest or judge. For Francis, however, showing mercy is all about showing compassion, and he sees this as being a duty to us all. He challenges people who view those in prison as solely wrongdoers; the reality is that we all make mistakes. Francis goes further saying that it is hypocritical to have a black and white definition of mercy as it ignores the reality that people can and do change their lives.

Francis has visited several prisons, and like many people who in the prison system, asks the question ‘Why them and not me?’ implying that people in prison are no different to you and me. This is not just the view of a religious leader. Tony Bates, Clinical Psychologist and Director of Headstrong said in a recent interview that the capacity to murder, kill or rape is in all of us, that we are no different to those who have committed these acts. He argues that the main reason that we do not is because our context and circumstances are very different.

Is Francis’ call just fantasy? Would countries, ‘just let people out of prison’? Prison amnesties are nothing new; while they are often a response to overcrowding or as cost saving measure they are also offered as part of a larger celebration as an act of kindness. Amnesties have taken place in Thailand to celebrate the (now deceased) King’s birthday in 2007 where 30,000 prisoners were pardoned. Ahead of Pope Francis’ visit to Cuba in 2015 more than 3,500 were released.

Historically, France, as part of Bastille Day celebrations has released prisoners and Bulgaria marked its membership to the EU with an amnesty. Presidents of the United States have given pardons and offered clemency. Individual States in the US have also made policy decisions to close detention centres, especially those holding juveniles. In 2011 the US Supreme Court ordered California to release more than 30,000 prisoners due to overcrowding. The sky has not fallen.

There is no legal or policy barrier to some form of collective pardon or amnesty. A pardon could be offered using the mechanisms of ‘enhanced remission’ and ‘temporary release’. Prison rules allow for early release of those who have been ‘model prisoners’, have completed programmes asked of them but have not yet reached the end of their sentence to be released after serving two-thirds of their sentence. Temporary release requires cabinet approval, de facto a civil servant in the Department of Justice, whereby a person in prison can be granted temporary release at any point in their sentence, if they breach the terms of their release they can be immediately recalled to prison.

The low hanging fruit, and a recommendation of the Oireachtas Justice Sub-Committee’s 2013 Report on penal reform, is the circa 124 serving a sentence of less than six months. These could be released immediately using the mechanism of temporary release. There is already broad agreement that short sentences are largely ineffective. A more substantial impact on numbers would be an increase in remission from a quarter to one-third, as recommended in the 1985 Whittaker Report. The Oireachtas Committee 2013 Report recommends introducing incentivised remission where someone could be released from custody after serving 50 per cent of their sentence as is the norm in the UK. While figures are not available as to how many would benefit from such an increase, conservatively this would be a several hundred.

If Francis’ request for compassion is not sufficiently persuasive, the Oireachtas Sub-Committee Report, which involved cross-party authorship, argues that there is a need for a one-third reduction in the prison population to allow for prisons to function as places of rehabilitation. Their magic number is 2,850, we’re currently at 3,702. A collective pardon by applying enhanced remission would have a substantial impact on reaching this figure.

Why not make a grand gesture to people in prison, many of whom are their own worst critics? Why not offer a collective pardon to those who the prison authorities believe to be of no threat?

Nelson Mandela said that you do not truly know a nation until you have been in its jails, that “a nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.” A Jubilee year is a celebration, one that offers hope and professes freedom. 2016 is also our centenary of the Easter Rising. Releasing 300 people from prison would not only progress an objective of the Oireachtas Committee’s report to reduce the prison population but fits with the spirit of a mature celebration of our centenary, while expressing compassion and mercy to all.