Alternatives to prison are in the best interests of Irish society

Considerable progress has been made in dealing with issues of overcrowding, drug abuse and violence within the prison system. Reports from visiting committees attached to eight prisons are generally positive, while pointing out where improvements can be made in terms of training, facilities and rehabilitation. The number of prisoners has fallen by almost ten per cent within the past four years and efforts are being made to accelerate that trend in the best interests of offenders and the community.

Application by judges of the Fines Act, which distinguishes between those who refuse or are unable to pay financial penalties, is expected to reduce the number of people automatically committed to prison. Last year, three-quarters of all female prisoners were sentenced for this offence, with a smaller proportion involving males. The great majority of these individuals were released within days, making a mockery of the system. Alternatives should involve deductions of money at source, community service and other arrangements. A working group established by Minister for Justice Alan Shatter to advise on crime prevention, sentencing policies, alternatives to custody, accommodation, regime support, rehabilitation and issues relating to female offenders is due shortly.

There has been a slow, but welcome, change in official thinking on prison policy. Previous governments closed their eyes to conditions in Irish jails as a “zero tolerance” approach to all crimes led to gross overcrowding, associated violence and worsening working conditions for staff. It couldn’t continue. Non-custodial options were supported, probationary services were expanded and the Community Return Scheme was introduced. These positive developments recognise prison as a place of last resort, to be used to restrain dangerous criminals who are a threat to society. Many of the people who currently end up there have mental health problems, come from deprived backgrounds or experience drug addiction. They need rehabilitation, training and after-care.

Dr Joe Barry of the Irish Penal Reform Trust has welcomed changes to the prison system while urging further reforms to make it more humane and cost effective. In particular, he argues that terminally-ill prisoners, who do not pose a threat to society, should not be incarcerated and that a similar approach should apply to mothers with young children. His suggestion that drug use should be treated as a social, rather than a criminal justice issue, deserves informed public debate.

Further progress will depend, to a large extent, on a reduction in prison numbers. That will require members of the Garda Síochána and the judiciary to alter traditional responses in favour of formal cautions and non-custodial sentences. Improved community services will also keep vulnerable young people out of jail.