15th June 2020
The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) is today 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. These calls come in response to today’s (15.06.2020) publication of the Irish Prison Service Annual Report 2019 by the Minister for Justice and Equality, 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.
Responding to the publication of the Irish Prison Service Annual Report 2019, IPRT Executive Director Fíona Ní Chinnéide said:
“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.”
Following a worrying trend from recent years, short-term sentences continued to make up a significant bulk of all committals to prison in 2019, with 76% of all sentenced committals being for sentences of less than 12 months. This is 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. Commenting on this practice, Ms. Ní Chinnéide continued:
“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.”
This rise in the number committals under short-term sentences comes despite the introduction of the Criminal Justice (Community Service) (Amendment) Act 2011, which provides that the court shall consider community service orders as an alternative to sentences of less than 12 months. To date, there has been no published analysis of the impact of this legislation. 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.
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, Ms. Ní Chinnéide continued:
“Additional space is not created through a cell audit. In reality, placing another bed in an existing cell perpetuates and normalises crowding, and exacerbates 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.”
In response to the information detailed in the Irish Prison Service Annual Report 2019, IPRT has called for:
For further comment, please contact Pamela or Fíona at: +353 87 181 2990
NOTES TO EDITORS
Respect for rights in the penal system with prison as a last resort.