Since 2007 the average daily number of prisoners in Irish jails has increased by one-third to 4,390 in 2011. The expanding size of the prison population, where the average annual cost for each inmate is €65,359, raises some obvious questions.
These relate not only to the cost of detention, but also to the relative effectiveness of custodial and non-custodial sentences in punishing crime, and in rehabilitating offenders. When the courts apply non-custodial sanctions, offenders serve probation orders or community service orders, often as an alternative to a prison sentence.
The results of a research study by the Probation Service and the Central Statistics Office (CSO) – the first of its kind – have provided valuable data that has important implications for sentencing policy. The study tracked rates of re-offending among those who had served non-custodial sentences. Almost two-thirds of offenders, who had received such a sentence in 2007, had not reoffended two years later. The overall reconviction rate was 37 per cent. Public order was the most common original offence, and offenders in this category also had the highest rate of reconviction. Minister for Justice Alan Shatter has welcomed the study’s “positive assessment of the effectiveness of non-custodial sanctions”.
This approach has limitations: it is not a substitute for custodial sentences where offenders have committed serious crimes. Nevertheless, this study has shown its effectiveness as an alternative sentencing option. And that provides a basis for judges to reassess sentencing policy.
Earlier research – based on statistics from 2001 to 2004 – served to reinforce the effectiveness of non-custodial sentencing, where possible. In that survey one-fifth of those who had served a prison sentence were back in prison within one year, having reoffended, rising to 40 per cent within four years. An approach that keeps offenders out of jail where possible, reduces the prison bill and offers a more effective form of rehabilitation for offenders has much to recommend it.