Sharp increase in number of very short prison terms being imposed by judges

Number of sentences being handed down of three months or less more than doubles in last five years

The number of very short prison sentences being imposed by judges has more than doubled in recent years, raising concern among prison reform campaigners.

A total of 994 sentences of three months or less were handed down by the criminal courts last year, an increase of 43 per cent on 2019 and 116 per cent on 2017.

Penal reformer groups note research showing that short prison sentences are ineffective in terms of rehabilitation and deterrence and that alternative community-based sanctions can often be more effective at discouraging recidivism.

Labour Party justice spokesman Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, who obtained the figures through a parliamentary question, said short sentences mean there is little time for inmates to integrate into the prison system and take part in rehabilitative programmes.


According to the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT), the growth in the number of short sentences is exacerbating overcrowding in prisons and may even be leading to more reoffending by breaking links between offenders and their communities and families.

The prison system is at 104 per cent capacity, with 4,678 people serving sentences. There are 259 prisoners without beds, meaning some have to sleep on mattresses.

The Government is preparing to significantly expand the prison estate by adding up to 400 spaces across four prisons. However, Mr Ó Ríordáin called this “bankrupt thinking” and said there are already too many people in prison who should not be there.

“Rather than seeing prison as the go-to option, we should be looking at tackling the systemic disadvantage and inequality that continues to drive more and more people into crime,” he said. “Just who is it serving to send people to prison, only for them to boomerang out again in less than six months?”

An IPRT spokeswoman added: “We cannot build ourselves out of prison overcrowding.”

Better understanding

The latest figures show prison terms of three months or less made up 20 per cent of all sentences handed down last year, up from 13 per cent in 2020 and just 7 per cent in 2017. A total of 4,838 sentences were handed down by judges last year. Although the average term was 455 days, almost 70 per cent of sentences were for 12 months or less.

There were 1,334 sentences between three and six months and 923 between six and 12 months. Just 44 sentences were for 10 years or more.

The IPRT said the short sentences disproportionately affect women, “many of whom are sentenced for less serious offences.” Almost 85 per cent of women sent to prison last year were sentenced to less than 12 months, compared with 65 per cent of men.

“It is vital that this results in a better and more nuanced understanding of why high numbers of short prison sentences continue to be used, so effective solutions can be rolled out, where needed,” said the spokeswoman.

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher is Crime and Security Correspondent of The Irish Times