With 6 in 10 of those released from prison reoffending within three years, it's clear the justice system alone can't solve this issue, writes Dr Megan Coghlan of the School of Law and Criminology.


The Central Statistics Office reported that over six in ten individuals released from prisons in Ireland were reconvicted within three years of release. This contributes to daily prison population figures which are at their highest ever level in Ireland with 4,632 people in custody in August 2023.

It may be assumed that crime can be explained by people rationally making bad choices and that prison is therefore the appropriate solution. But people in prison often have multiple, complex needs and face numerous obstacles upon their release - such as homelessness, addiction and mental illness which can push a person back to crime and represent barriers that people cannot always control. These mean that the process of moving away from crime, known as "desistance", takes time and requires support from multiple services.

Desistance is a journey that requires a significant change of lifestyle. This type of change likely occurs gradually so it’s important to celebrate small changes that happen as a person moves towards desistance. This may be something as simple as expressing a desire to change, attempting to repair relationships with family, or starting a course. The focus must be on supporting successful changes as a person moves away from crime rather than focusing solely on the outcome: the eventual cessation of crime. If positive changes go unacknowledged, people can feel discouraged at a time when they most need support to maintain a positive trajectory.

Collaboration between different statutory and non-statutory agencies is a proven way to assist a person’s desistance journey. The purpose of collaborative working in criminal justice is to provide varied and practical supports for people, recognising that one agency alone cannot deliver all the necessary care. For example, to move away from crime people might need practical support with housing, welfare, education or employment, addiction, social isolation, physical or mental illness and behavioural issues.

In Ireland, most people in prison have never sat a state exam, do not have a trade or occupation, are unemployed upon entering prison, have an addiction or substance abuse problem and/or are likely have come from communities that have high levels of deprivation. Combined with other social, economic and political issues faced upon release, such as a housing crisis and long waiting lists for access to mental health and substance abuse services, the reality is that investing in criminal justice alone will not reduce reoffending in Ireland.

Collaboration between different community-based and statutory agencies allows for enhanced levels of support to be provided. This is because agencies working together can offer greater and more varied expertise and services, compared to a single rehabilitative programme delivered by a criminal justice agency. Furthermore, these partnerships allow for coordinated action whereby agencies work together towards agreed upon goals. This is increasingly being focused on in Ireland and has been outlined as a priority within the criminal justice sector’s strategy to 2024.

In Ireland it could be argued that partnership working within criminal justice has always existed to a certain extent, for example, the voluntary sector has regularly been involved in the criminal justice system. The Probation Service spends a substantial part of its budget on funding community-based organisations (€17.532 million in funding was provided to 60 organisations in 2021).

Collaboration with non-statutory agencies based in communities can encourage more innovative approaches to desistance. One creative example is in mentorship programmes that allow for personal experiences of desistance to be shared. Mentors can help to legitimise support from different agencies encouraging people to engage with available services. In Ireland, the peer led charity Care After Prison works in collaboration with statutory agencies such as Dublin City Council, the Irish Prison Service, the Irish Probation Service and several community organisations to offer a range of services, including peer mentoring. This provides people being released from prison with a mentor who has also been in prison and has first-hand experience of the challenges people face upon release.

Another creative example of collaboration can be seen in Working to Change, which works with private and voluntary organisations across a range of sectors to increase employment for people with criminal convictions. This is important as it’s incredibly difficult for people with criminal records to find employment, and having a meaningful job is a key factor in maintaining desistance from crime.

My research, conducted with Dr Dennis Gough, shows that collaborative working provides a range of benefits, including more varied support for those on the journey to desistance. Firstly, partnership working can better respond to a diverse range of individual needs compared to one agency working in isolation. The range of skills and expertise enables flexible, person-centred support. Secondly, partnership working can increase the involvement of charities or not-for-profit organisations that can provide different types of support to the public sector.

Thirdly, people get access to a range of different services in an efficient way so waiting times can be reduced. Fourthly, partnership working can be specific to communities and, in using the voluntary sector, localised support can be provided which is important as the people most in need of support may not be able to travel far to access services. Fifthly, partnership working can enhance support for, and safeguarding of victims. Overall, collaborative working in the criminal justice system can provide flexible, holistic, quick and accessible support, helping people initiate and maintain change over time.

Increased access to resources and reduced waiting times for support is vital to ensure success, and a worthwhile endeavour in our pursuit of a reduction of crime rates. Supporting desistance can help to provide stability and routine in people’s lives, leading to a reduction in reoffending, better community safety and lower expenditure in criminal justice. We must stop assuming that the criminal justice system alone can solve our problems. The smart money is in collaboration to promote desistance, and Ireland must invest heavily in this approach to make society safer.

This piece originally appeared on RTÉ Brainstorm