Judges who send people to prison for less than a year should have to submit written justifications for doing so, a new paper by the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) says.
The discussion document, to be published on Wednesday, says the application of community service is under-utilised in Ireland and should be legislatively based.
Judges who opt for custodial sentences of less than 12 months instead of a non-custodial alternative such as a community service order (CSO) should be legally compelled to explain why, it says.
“Imprisonment causes a number of serious social harms, and therefore should only be used sparingly ... the numbers in prison should be reduced,” the IPRT paper Community Service in Ireland says. “Ireland’s penal policy should instead be focused on non-custodial responses to crime.”
According to its data, the number of community service orders imposed fell from 2,738 in 2011 to 1,938 in 2015, with a slight increase to 2,067 last year.
The orders are alternatives to short prison sentences where recipients complete a certain amount of unpaid work, ranging from 40 to 240 hours, depending on the offence.
In 2016, the Probation Service supervised 2,067 orders, totalling 326,967 hours of work in lieu of 1,006 years in prison.
The IPRT report, based on doctoral research by Dr Kate O’Hara, promotes the benefits for both offender and society of the CSO alternative to imprisonment. It also points to potential economic gains to the State, as annual incarceration costs are about €70,000 per prisoner – while community service orders cost about €2,500 each.
The paper says work carried out by those on CSOs is also socially beneficial; last year alone over 300,000 hours of work were completed with an estimated value of €3 million.
“Despite these benefits, community service orders are under-utilised by the Irish criminal justice system.”
Limited existing data illustrates an “overreliance” on prison. In 2012, Ireland’s committal rate (those entering prison) was 375.6 people per 100,000 (population), compared to a European average of 163.5.
Nevertheless, prison sentences of less than 12 months fell by almost 30 per cent in 2010 to 2015. The same period saw a reduction in the number of CSOs.
IPRT says “the emphasis on imprisonment as punishment in Ireland may be shifting ”, but the need for a greater utilisation of CSOs remains.
“Community service works to the advantage of individuals - for example, by encouraging a sense of participation in society, and to the advantage of wider society,” the IPRT research argues.
“Not only was it reported [in the course of the research] that communities benefited from the unpaid work completed, many recipients compared their work to regular employment and reported a change of outlook.”
By contrast, it says custodial sentences can be damaging. “Short periods of imprisonment can have long-lasting negative effects, including disruption to family relationships, contact with social or community services, and loss of employment,” the paper noted.
Among a number of recommendations, the IPRT has said the use of short custodial sentences should be subject to greater accountability.
“The principle of imprisonment as a last resort should be enshrined in legislation, with a mandatory provision that judges must provide written reasons where a custodial sentence of less than 12 months is imposed instead of a non-custodial alternative.”