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Is Garlic-Smuggling Worse Than Killing a Man?

I wrote last week about Claire Nolan, a convicted drug dealer, who was found guilty of deliberately crushing a man to death with her car.    Today, Claire Nolan was sentenced to six years in jail for ending this man’s life, which is coincidentally the same amount of time Paul Begley received for avoiding tax on the garlic he imported from China.

Comparisons are inevitable, with people asking, understandably, if smuggling garlic is a crime as serious as deliberately taking another person’s life, but I think the two cases raise a more fundamental question, and it’s this.  Is a term in prison the best we can come up with when punishing crimes?  Imprisonment is such a blunt, unrefined instrument that it inevitably invites odious comparisons like that between Nolan and Begley, but it’s a mistake to use such a crude measure as duration of sentence to draw conclusions.

Requiring a judge to boil everything down to one single number is simply insane.  It’s like holding up score cards at an evil ballroom dancing competition but that’s pretty much what the judiciary are expected to do, and ultimately, the number they pronounce is meaningless, because for the most part, prison is meaningless, dehumanising and counter-productive.  The people who should be kept away from society — dangerous criminals — just get worse behind bars.  They mix with their own kind, they build relationships with their own kind, and when they get out, they’re straight back into the activities that put them behind bars.

What’s more, prison isn’t a deterrent for these people.  I recently had to go to a Garda station to pay a parking fine I had unfortunately overlooked.  I didn’t want to pay it, but the letter was quite insistent.  Pay this or go to jail, you bastard!

Three separate Gardai in the station surprised me by apologising.  One even said It’s only the decent people who pay these fines.  The rest of them go to jail for a couple of hours and then they’re out.

I paid the fine because, as a lawyer friend put it to me, That place isn’t for civilians.


Now, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have prisons.  I think we need prisons to keep dangerous people off our streets, and I think that includes the likes of Claire Nolan, a violent and unpredictable criminal, who took a man’s life and then torched the weapon, a car, in a deliberate attempt to destroy the evidence.  On the other hand, I also think Paul Begley is a criminal, but as has been pointed out, he was paying off his debt to the Revenue at the rate of €33,000 per month and therefore, the case against him appears not only to be vindictive but also contrary to common sense.  As a result of his jailing, the State won’t receive the remainder of his repayments, but it will be put to the very great expense of securely housing a man who is no threat to anyone walking the streets.

If we had a proper restorative justice system in this country, instead of the Victorian, knee-jerk impulse to jail people, we might have a much less dysfunctional society.  After all, incarceration is the very thing that gave us our current crop of violent criminal families, and when I say incarceration, I’m not talking about the state-run prison system.  I’m referring to the abduction and imprisonment of thousands of young boys in industrial schools, where they learned about degradation, violence, humiliation, dehumanisation, sexual abuse and resentment.  Scratch the surface of any Irish crime gang and you’ll find grandfathers who were locked up by the Christian Brothers, beaten and abused for the crime of being poor.  Scratch the surface of any neighbourhood you consider threatening or dangerous and you’ll find the same thing.

Prison alone is not enough.  Our judges are asked to ponder complex issues and reduce them to a meaningless scalar quantity, but worryingly, many of them justify this nonsense with inflated talk of calibrating their sentences when in reality they’re just thinking of a number.  I wonder how many of our judges would be up to the task if a government decided to do something about this blunt instrument and introduced a range of sanctions including punishments designed to reflect the loss inflicted on the victims?  Not quite an eye for an eye.  Perhaps more a loss for a loss but with the hope of becoming better.

We can’t go on running a prison system that offers no hope of producing anything but embittered, ignorant, uneducated, dehumanised and resentful recidivists.  If this is the best we can manage, we’re not very good, are we?  This is not something for judges to deal with.  This is a job for the legislators we elect, but unfortunately, our country is gripped in the stranglehold of the most pernicious whip system in all of Europe, so I wouldn’t hold out much hope.

We all laughed when we heard that the Ultimate Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything was 42.

What’s the difference between that and saying that Garlic Smuggling equals 6, or Killing by Car equals 8 minus 2?