A few things to ask canvassers on… penal reform
1. Do you think the prison population should be reduced?
2. Do you think our taxes are spent well on the use of prison?
3. How are you going to put an end to overcrowding in our prisons?
4. Why invest money in building prisons when you will get better results acting early in communities and with children?
Here are some much better ones from IPRT:
1. What will you do to ensure that slopping out in Irish prisons is brought to an end during the next Dáil?
For almost two decades, Ireland has received international condemnation for its failure to address this serious human rights issue; it is a national disgrace.
- · 1,003 men were slopping out in Irish prisons – approx. 28% of prisoners – on 17th Dec 2010
- · Overcrowding means that prisoners who are slopping out are frequently sharing cells with other prisoners
- · It is highly likely that there will be legal action taken by prisoners against the State in the future; similar action has cost Scotland millions.
2. What is your position on Thornton Hall?
IPRT believes a revised prison building programme should be based on 3 core principles:
1. Humane conditions as a priority – Cork, Mountjoy and Limerick (female and male) in urgent need of refurbishment
2. No expansion in overall numbers – any new cells should replace old cells
3. Small local prisons should be preferred over large prisons; more open prisons are necessary for dealing with less serious offenders.
- · Over €42m has already been spent on this ‘white elephant’ project, mostly on the land purchase
- · Super-prisons are proven internationally to be difficult to manage
- · The location of Thornton Hall will decrease opportunities for the successful integration of prisoners back into families and communities
- · The allocated capital expenditure for buildings and equipment in the prison service for 2011 is €33.4m. According to then Minister for Justice, Dermot Ahern, the capital funding in Budget 2011 will allow for “the provision of additional prison places including the phased development of the new prison campus at Thornton Hall and an extension to the Midlands Prison in Portlaoise”. However, it is clear that the development of Thornton Hall, even on a phased basis, is not likely to proceed in any meaningful way in the near future.
- · IPRT believes Thornton Hall as currently planned will only serve to increase the prison population, it will not address prison overcrowding.
3. Are you committed to sentencing reform?
1. A review of mandatory sentencing legislation is needed. Specifically, IPRT believes that drugs legislation is leading to large numbers of low-level figures receiving long sentences, while senior figures are escaping these sanctions.
2. We continue to commit extremely high numbers to prison for less serious offences; the principle of imprisonment as a last resort should be applied to all non-violent and less serious offenders:
- · the Fines Act must be fully commenced with urgency, towards ending the imprisonment of fine defaulters
- · the Community Service Order Bill, which would require judges to consider community service for sentences of 6 months or less, should be enacted immediately.
- · The proportion of our prison population serving long sentences for drug crime as a result of mandatory and presumptive sentencing laws has increased significantly in recent years. While those laws were introduced to target major drug dealers, there is growing evidence that a large number of those convicted under these laws are low-level figures in the drug trade who may be holding or transporting drugs on behalf of others. Many of those convicted are first time offenders and may not stand to make any financial gain from their crimes.
- · A drugs strategy that is centred on mandatory sentencing means directing resources to prisons which could otherwise be spent on policing or drug treatment. Research conducted by the Rand Corporation in the U.S. shows that conventional police drug enforcement would reduce crimes against persons by about 70% more than mandatory minimum sentencing. However, investing the same resources in drug treatment should reduce serious crimes (against both property and persons) around fifteen times as much as would the incarceration alternatives.
- · In 2010, there were nearly 7,000 committals to prison for non-payment of fines – these are cases where a judge had decided the appropriate punishment was a fine, but the person ends up in prison because either they cannot or will not pay the financial penalty.
- · 2009 also saw 7,655 (70% of committals) sent to prison for sentences of less than 6 months. Eliminating these short and counter-productive prison sentence would create significant savings for the Prison Service and the Garda.
4. Are you committed to the Spent Convictions Bill? Will you make it a priority?
Ireland is the only European country which does not provide for any system of expungement of spent convictions (so-called ‘second chance legislation’). This means that even minor convictions can remain a permanent barrier to employment:
- · Employment is proven to be one of the biggest factors in desistance from crime and reoffending.
- · The proposed Spent Convictions Bill, published by the outgoing Government, received cross-party support.
- · The legislation is ready for re-introduction to the Oireachtas, following considerable work by the Dept of Justice and Law Reform officials.
- · We need to ensure that this is a political priority for a new Government and that a revised Bill is enacted in the first session of the new Oireachtas.