13 Aug 2022

Imprisonment rise a 'stark reminder' that jail is over over-used response to crime insists reform group

Irish Prison Service report published

Midlands Prison PortlaisePicture:  Finbarr O'Rourke

Midlands Prison Portlaoise

The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) is calling for increased investment in community-based alternatives to prison, a reversal of plans to increase prison capacities, and a review of existing legislation designed to reduce committals to prison for less serious offences.

The trust made the calls in response to today’s Irish Prison Service Annual Report 2019 which shows a significant increase of people committed to prison in Ireland in 2019, including a 21% increase in the number of committals on sentences of less than 12 months.

The 2019 report, subtitled 'Creating a Better Environment' is introduced by the Director General Caron McCaffrey. She set out the situation in relation to numbers behind bars.

“2019 has seen numbers in prisons continue to rise. In 2018, we reported on significant increases over a short period of time. These increases have been sustained in 2019, putting pressure on the system in a number of areas, including prisoner accommodation, the provision of services and the volume of prisoner escorts.

“The total number of prisoners in custody on 1 January 2019 was 3,904 which increased to as high as 4,068 by the end of August before receding to 3,950 by the end of the year.

“The average number of female offenders in custody was 170, an increase of 3% on the 2018 figure of 165. The average number of male prisoners was 3,801, an increase of 2% on the 2018 figure of 3,726,” she said.

Laois Offaly TD and Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan published the report.

“I am very conscious of the increasing numbers in custody over recent years, and in particular the rise in offenders committed to sentences of less than 12 months. These statistics underline the potential benefits and scope to extend the use of community service orders, which oblige an offender - if assessed as suitable - to address their offending behaviour by carrying out unpaid work in the community.

“This is something which I would hope the newly established Judicial Council might consider through its Sentencing Guidelines and Information Committee,” she said.

IPRT Executive Director Fíona Ní Chinnéide responded to the rise in numbers.

“The figures published today are a stark reminder that imprisonment is over-used as a response to offending in Ireland. In particular, the rise in the rate of committals on short sentences points to a failure in policy, which must be addressed if we are to build safer communities and enhance confidence in the criminal justice system. International evidence finds that short prison sentences can increase risks to public safety, so it is essential that community-based alternatives are prioritised and resourced,” she said.

The trust said short-term sentences continued to make up a significant bulk of all committals to prison in 2019, despite evidence that it is cheaper, often more effective and less damaging to respond to less serious offending through community service, restorative justice and other community alternatives to prison. 

“If the courts continue to commit high rates of men and women to short-term custody, overcrowding will become unsustainable, prison resources will be drained, outcomes for offenders will deteriorate and the objectives in our penal policy will not be met. In particular, the increase in the number of committals for default on court-ordered fines is concerning. These are offences for which the judge did not consider imprisonment appropriate in the first place. If the Fines Act is not working, it needs to be reviewed and alternative sanctions enforced.

“We strongly welcome Minister Flanagan’s focus on the concerning rise in the number of people committed to sentences of less than twelve months in his statement today, and the potential to extend the use of community service orders. This is an approach we hope to see taken up by the incoming government,” said Ms Ní Chinnéide.

The Trust said the rise in the number committals under short-term sentences comes despite the introduction of the Criminal Justice (Community Service) (Amendment) Act 2011, which it said provides that the court shall consider community service orders as an alternative to sentences of less than 12 months.

The Trust also said that there has been no published analysis of the impact of this legislation. A statement said the IPRT believes that further examination is needed to understand the reasons why there continues to be an increase in the number of short sentences handed down by the courts.

Ms Ní Chinnéide also responding to plans by the Irish Prison Service to increase prison capacity following a cell audit, which was designed to identify where spaces could be added across the prison estate

“Additional space is not created through a cell audit. In reality, placing another bed in an existing cell perpetuates and normalises crowding, and exacerbates the existing strain on prison resources, staffing and access to rehabilitative services. Instead, overcrowding should be addressed by a safe and structured reduction of the prison population, rather than the expansion of prison spaces.

“In the Annual Report for 2019, the Irish Prison Service states its goals to “endeavour to become a world-class prison service” and to “become a global leader in penal practice” – now is the prime opportunity to drive action towards those goals. As society attempts to settle into a new normal, it is critical that recent COVID-19-related successes on the safe reduction of the prison population by over 10%, successful collaborative working and a focus on community alternatives are retained, so that prison resources can be focused on the rehabilitation of those people who have committed serious offences,” Ms Ní Chinnéide.  

In response to the information detailed in the Irish Prison Service Annual Report 2019, IPRT has called for:

- The principle of imprisonment as a measure of last resort to be enshrined in statute, which was a core recommendation in the cross-agency, Department of Justice and Equality-led Strategic Review of Penal Policy (Recommendation 32);
- Publication by the Office of the Inspector of Prisons of their revised prison bed capacity figures;
- Investment by the next Government in community-based sanctions nationwide, including national roll-out of evidence-led approaches such as restorative justice;
- A review of the impact of the Criminal Justice (Community Service) (Amendment Act) 2011;
- A review of the Fines (Payment and Recovery) Act 2014.

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