Prison Policy under scrutiny

In the Irish Times yesterday, Conor Lally informs us that the number of people jailed for not paying fines is likely to double this year, bringing the numbers of committals for non payment of fines up to one quarter of all committals to prison. 2,520 people were committed to jail for non payment of a fine in 2008.

This should not come as a surprise as economic difficulties worsen. What is difficult to understand is why policy makers have been slow to impose what would be a very easy partial solution to our overcrowding problems. Those who cannot pay fines should not end up in prison. Those who are not deemed enough of a risk or whose offending is not serious enough to warrant a prison sentence should not be taking up much needed space in our jails.

Recent research by Professor Ian O’Donnell, Professor Eric Baumer and Nicola Hughes of University College Dublin has also found that fine defaulters who are sent to prison are the most likely of all offenders to return to prison. 85% of those sent to prison for fine default end up back in jail within 4 years. This is a startling statistic and, as the authors note, removing fine defaulters from the prison system altogether would significantly reduce recidivism rates and the numbers of released prisoners would fall, reducing the burden on the communities to which ex-prisoners return. This is quite apart from the alleviation of the administrative burden on the Irish Prison Service which comes with fine defaulters sent to prison, many of whom remain for a short period of time.

The Fines Bill 2009 will allow fines to be paid by instalments. Judges will also be able to impose Community Service Orders instead of fines. This Bill should be enacted without delay.The Oireachtas should also take this opportunity to re-examine our system of punishment and the use of Community Service Orders more generally.

As a recent evaluation carried out by the Probation Service has shown, Community Service Orders are significantly underused in Ireland, with a great variation in their use across the country. The review also showed that Community Service Orders are extremely cost efficient, with the average cost per offender being €4,295, the equivalent of less than three weeks in prison.

Community Service Orders also allow offenders to give something back to communities and are a far more constructive response to offending than short terms in prison.

Short prison sentences are largely futile. As the UCD research has shown, those sentenced to terms of less than 6 months have high rates of reconviction. Nothing can be done within the prison to assist a prisoner to change their ways in such a short period of time. By contrast, Community Service Orders allow for whatever links to the home, family, employment and community life to be maintained.

Despite the advantages, the number of Community Service Orders issued by the District Courts has actually fallen from 2,883 in 2003 to 2,500 in 2007.

There is much potential for innovation in this area and plenty of opportunity for much more widespread use of the Community Service Order Scheme. Policy-makers should make it the default sanction in the case of minor offending and fine default, with prison as the exceptional alternative in such situations. Judges must play their part in making Community Service Orders a much more central part of our response to offending.

These arguments acquire even greater force when placed in the context of our overcrowded prison system. The Inspector of Prisons, Judge Michael Reilly, in his most recent report highlighted his concern that overcrowding has reached dangerous levels in Mountjoy and Cork prisons. The Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture has also expressed its disquiet about these matters.

Overcrowding has negative impacts on prisoners, staff and regimes. Overcrowding puts the safety of prisoners at risk.  It interferes with the ability to plan for a person’s release into the community, it affects programmes designed to assist offenders to change their behaviour. It also affects the administration of sentences handed down by the courts. When prisons are full, it is often those on short sentences who are released early to make way for new committals.

Unplanned and unsupervised temporary release militates against both proper sentence planning and undermines the expectation that people should serve the sentence deemed appropriate for their crime, subject to normal remission. This undermines public confidence in sentencing, but also in the ability of the prison system to prevent re-offending on release.

We must ask whether we are making the best and most efficient use of our prison system. As well as debtors and fine-defaulters, we send large numbers of people to prison for less than six months: 62% of committals in 2008. 87.5% of committals were for non-violent offences. Road traffic offences accounted for 28% of all committals. 3 month sentences, which can do nothing for either public safety or rehabilitation of offenders, actually increased by 54% last year.

Taken together, the imprisonment of debtors, fine defaulters and the proliferation of short sentences indicate that Irish prison policy has a distinctly ineffective, wasteful and unimaginative nature. Ending imprisonment for fine defaulters is a good place to start remoulding our prison system; but there is much more that needs to be done.

Read more on this topic.

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Prison Policy under scrutiny

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