Increasingly fewer people are being sent to jail for not paying fines as legislation designed to cut back the numbers takes hold.
According to the Irish Prison Service (IPS), committals to prison dropped by almost 15 per cent in 2016, with 8,439 people put behind bars for failing to pay various court-imposed penalties.
The figure is expected to drop to as low as about 4,500 in 2017.
It marks a significant turnaround. In 2015, almost 9,900 people ended up in prison for failing to pay up, an increase of more than 10 per cent on the previous year.
The sea change will be welcomed by Government as proof of the effectiveness of the 2014 Fines Act, which came into force at the beginning of last year.
The following June, Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald said the legislation would see non-payment of fines committals reduce dramatically.
Launching the IPS annual report on Monday, Ms Fitzgerald said the rate of committals was cut by about half for the first quarter of 2017, and that trend is expected to continue.
Wage attachment order
Under the Act, fines are set at a level that takes into account the person’s finances. Those fines over €100 can be paid by instalment and if a person fails to pay, the judge can consider a wage attachment order, a recovery order, or a community service order. Imprisonment is now seen as a last resort.
“At the end of the day if somebody doesn’t pay a fine they will end up in prison but be very clear, there will be quite a number of steps before that,” Ms Fitzgerald said at the report’s launch in Mountjoy Prison.
Last year saw a total of 15,099 committals in general to Ireland’s 14 prison facilities, which is a 12.2 per cent drop on the 17,206 figure from 2015. The majority, about 80 per cent, were men.
Of the total, 11,660 were serving sentences, 2,976 were on remand, 37 were there for European Arrest Warrant extradition proceedings, 421 under immigration law and five for indefinite contempt of court.
The overall daily average number of prisoners in custody in 2016 was 3,718 compared to 3,722 in 2015.
The IPS has an annual budget of €332 million and employs 3,215 staff. Last year, it cost the State €68,628 to keep a prisoner behind bars for 12 months, although this dropped slightly from €69,421 in 2015.
There were seven cases of staff whistleblowers bringing complaints under protected disclosure provisions, two of which were upheld. Details on the nature of those complaints were not made available.
Work to ensure the discontinuation of prison “slopping out”, the process of inmates cleaning out their toilet facilities, continues as part of the IPS capital programme of investment.
“With the construction of a new prison in Cork which opened on February 12th, 2016, and the refurbishment of Mountjoy which is scheduled to be complete in 2017, 98 per cent of prisoners now have access to in-cell sanitation, an increase from 72 per cent of prisoners in 2010,” the report said.
The controversial slopping-out regime was condemned in 1993 by the European Committee on the Prevention of Torture which urged it to be brought to an end.
A breakdown of Irish prison committals shows the numbers of those committed on sentences of less than 12 months has decreased by 3.4 per cent on 2015 and by 27.8 per cent in the last five years.
Sentences of 10 years and more increased by 8 per cent from 36 in 2015 to 39 in 2016, while the numbers committed to life in prison decreased by 15.8 per cent for the year.