8th September 2022
The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) welcomes a reduction in the average number of men and women in prison across 2021. However, the high numbers who continue to be committed to prison on short sentences suggests that the Courts are not making use of cheaper, less damaging, and more effective alternatives to prison. IPRT is calling on the Minister for Justice to make immediate efforts to adequately and appropriately resource the proposed actions in the recently published Review of Policy Options for Prison and Penal Reform to ultimately reduce the number of people sent to prison and to support a move away from responses to offending that cause unnecessary further harm. This call comes in response to the publication today (8 September 2022) of the 2021 Annual Report of the Irish Prison Service (IPS).
While the report details the considerable efforts made by the IPS to enhance rehabilitation, some of the statistics for 2021 offer cause for concern, particularly in relation to the use of short-term prison sentences. Imprisonment trends emerging in 2022 are even more alarming, with the number of people currently in Irish prisons soaring to near-historic levels and the number of people held in pre-trial detention (on remand) far surpassing pre-pandemic trends.
Responding to the publication of the IPS Annual Report 2021, IPRT Executive Director Saoirse Brady commented:
“While there were some welcome shifts in the use of imprisonment in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic, more recent data suggests that this has not been sustained and we are back to business as usual. In 2022 to date, the amount of people in prison has been accelerating once again, with the most recent data showing that more than half of people in prison have to share cells. We risk returning to a point where rehabilitative services cannot be delivered effectively in prisons, which undermines one of the core purposes of imprisonment.”
The Irish Prison Service has an obligation to accept all people sent to it by the Courts. However, imprisonment should only ever be used when it is absolutely necessary. The report shows that of all sentenced committals to prison in 2021, almost 4 in 5 (79%) were for sentences of less than 12 months. IPRT welcomes departmental commitments to move away from this practice, but for people sitting in overcrowded prisons this week, and for victims and communities who want to see meaningful change and safer societies, action is needed now.
Ms Brady continued:
“There continues to be an over-reliance on imprisonment for people convicted of less serious offences, despite its damaging social and economic impact on individuals, families, and communities. We are also seeing a very high rate of people detained on remand when we question if this is always necessary. In-depth research on sentencing and judicial attitudes is required to make sense of these trends.
“We know that the majority of men and women in prison have additional mental and physical health needs. Quite frequently, these untreated issues play an indirect role in their imprisonment. Adequately meeting these needs can address the underlying causes of offending and make society safer, without trapping people in a revolving cycle of imprisonment. We welcome that Minister McEntee will be bringing the report of the High-Level Taskforce to consider the mental health and addiction challenges of persons interacting with the criminal justice system to Government very soon for sign-off. We hope that it will take a holistic approach and commit to investing in the necessary supports that will make a real difference for people on the ground.
“We are at a turning point, with several long-awaited opportunities to reform our penal system materialising in the coming months. We can’t look back in another decade and reflect on the opportunities we missed to make our communities safer. Penal reform cannot be advanced on a foundation of overcrowded prisons and where some people feel their only option is to be isolated in a cell for most of the day for their own safety. While we recognise the need for additional prison spaces – as announced today – as one part of the response to tackling overcrowding and ensuring that people do not have to share cells, without reducing the number of people sent to prison in the first place, the Government risks addressing the symptoms of a broken penal system, rather than its causes.”
On publication of the IPS Annual Report 2021, IPRT reiterates its previous calls:
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NOTES FOR EDITOR:
On 7 September 2022, there were:
In April 2022: