Shatter frustrated at judges’ imposing short jail terms

Minister says judiciary must exercise ‘independent discretions’ when determining sentences

 Minister for Justice Alan Shatter said it  is ‘important that the community service order scheme is utilised to a greater extent than it is being utilised at present’.   Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

Minister for Justice Alan Shatter said it is ‘important that the community service order scheme is utilised to a greater extent than it is being utilised at present’. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

Thu, May 2, 2013, 15:58

Conor Lally Crime Correspondent In Athlone

Minister for Justice Alan Shatter has expressed his “disappointment” that judges are largely ignoring new legislation aimed at encouraging them to impose community service on criminals as an alternative to short prison sentences.

Mr Shatter denied suggestions he was interfering with the independence of the judiciary just weeks after a dispute emerged between him and the judges, many of whom believed at the time that their independence was being undermined by the Minister.

“Our judiciary must exercise their independent discretions whence determining the nature of sentences to be imposed,” Mr Shatter said at the annual conference of the Prison Officers’ Association in Athlone, Co Westmeath, today.

“But it is important that the community service order scheme is utilised to a greater extent than it is being utilised at present.”

Mr Shatter said he was disappointed that it is not being utilised to a greater and expressed his hope it will be in future.

Figures released by the Irish Prison Service today suggest most judges are not acting on the provisions encouraging them away from such short sentences.

Last year there were 17,026 committals to Irish prisons. Of these some 13,526 were under sentence, while others were remand prisoners awaiting trial. Of the 13,526 sent to jail to serve sentences, some 11,844, or 88 per cent, were jailed for less than a year.

This is despite the new Community Service Amendment Act enacted in 2011 stipulating that judges must consider non-custodial alternatives to jailing a person for a term of less than one year.

The provision is aimed at reducing prison population numbers and engaging offenders with work in the community as well as rehabilitation for drug or alcohol abuse.

There is no obligation on judges to opt for a community service option as an alternative to jail terms of one year or less but they are urged to consider it.

Mr Shatter said he would monitor the situation and may amend the legislation if he deemed that necessary. He believed too many people were being sent to prison unnecessarily at a time when legislation had been introduced to encourage community-based sanctions and when the Probation Service had spare capacity to take in more offenders.

“I am anxious that the community service order scheme is utilised to a great extent. It means that people who have committed a crime pay back their community, do something of positive value and also reduces the expenditure of the prison service and also reduces overcrowding in the prisons. So this is very important issue in the public interest.”

“If it turns out that the legislation is not working correctly, that is something I would have to reflect on as Minister for Justice. There is a legislative provision enacted and if it turns out that it needs to be better structured or amended that’s always something that a Minister could consider doing.”

Mr Shatter also denied a new community return scheme, under which compliant and non violent offenders are released early if they engage properly with the probation services on release, was a new revolving door system under a different name.

“In the context of this scheme, which is innovative and successful, 90 per cent of those who have engaged in the scheme have fully and properly committed and completed their community service term. The other 10 per cent have been returned to jail but haven’t created any major difficulties of which I am aware. They have simply failed to comply with their community service obligations. We have to do things differently, we have to change the manner in which will deal with (offenders).”