Making steps towards imprisonment as a last resort

There is good news in today’s Irish Examiner in which Minister Ahern states that legislation will be forthcoming to require judges to consider community service orders instead of imprisonment for offences which would otherwise attract a prison term of up to six months.

It is imperative that this is dealt with carefully when it comes to implementation as it is only with the buy-in of the judiciary that we will see this have real effects.

The introduction of such legislation makes sense. Short sentences are wasteful in economic, social and rehabilitative terms. The impact they can have on an individual is significant, but their impact on society negative.  The Howard League has commissioned research into this area and we already have Irish research indicating that short term sentences give rise to very high rates of recidivism.

Minister Ahern said:

Some judges do use it [community service] as an alternative, some don’t,” said Mr Ahern. “As a result of this [legislation] they will have to consider it. This is insisting the judges consider the option. It is not tying the judges’ hands. Ultimately it is a matter for them.
He also said the option would be for people convicted of relatively minor crimes, including some road traffic offences. The story of the number of people sent to prison for road traffic offences receives little coverage but as the last Annual Report on Prisons makes clear the figures are very significant.
The statements from Minister Ahern and the proposal for legislation are welcome steps towards ensuring prison is a measure of last resort.
There is one statement, however, in the Examiner’s article which indicates that it would be unwise to bet on falling prisoner numbers just yet:
Mr Ahern revealed details of the proposal at the official opening on a new block in Wheatfield Prison, Dublin. The block has 176 cells, with an initial capacity to house over 200 inmates. 

One prison source said the cells were slightly bigger than normal and that this was to “future proof” for doubling up the cells.

This term ‘future-proofing’ has been used before, most notably in relation to Thornton Hall but also during the late 1990s. The memories of the 1970s and 1980s must be even more troubling in today’s overcrowded times. How about future-proofing our criminal justice system by committing to the reduction of imprisonment and the diversion of resources into initiatives we know will have a greater effect on crime reduction in the long term?
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Making steps towards imprisonment as a last resort

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