Prison numbers should be cut by a third, says Oireachtas committee report

TDs and Senators call for change in ‘penal culture’

Senator Ivana Bacik, who prepared the report by the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, said it contained “concrete, credible recommendations”, many of which were cost-neutral. Photograph: Bernard Walsh

Senator Ivana Bacik, who prepared the report by the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, said it contained “concrete, credible recommendations”, many of which were cost-neutral. Photograph: Bernard Walsh

 

Prison sentences of less than six months for non-violent offences should be replaced with community service orders, a new report has recommended.

The study by the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice also called on the Government to pledge to reduce the prison population by a third over the next 10 years.

While crime figures have generally fallen since 2008, the number of people in Irish prisons has risen over the same period.

Suggesting reforms that would bring about a more effective and progressive penal regime, the cross-party report said offenders who were given sentences of less than six months for non-violent offences should be diverted from the prison system towards community service.

It said this had been a “hugely effective” strategy in Finland, where a shift in policy had brought about a sharp fall in the prison population since 2005 and provided a model for Ireland to follow.

The report said a more effective and “genuinely rehabilitative” penal policy could be developed if the prison population were reduced by a third over 10 years.

Figures from the International Centre for Prison Studies show that between 1995 and 2013, the prison population in Ireland has risen from 59- to 93-per-100,000, an increase of 57 per cent. This places Ireland’s incarceration rate below those in England and the United States, but well above the rate in Scandinavian countries.


‘Very concerned’
The commitee said it was “very concerned” at this rapid increase and called on the Government to work for a “change in penal culture” by declaring its intent to reduce the numbers.

It recommended that standard remission be increased from one-quarter to one-third, a measure it said would reduce overcrowding and help bring the imprisonment rate down to more manageable levels.

Senator Ivana Bacik, who prepared the report, said it contained “concrete, credible recommendations”, many of which were cost-neutral. A shift away from prison building and a greater emphasis on structured release would save significant costs, she added.

The report pointed out that only very basic provision is made in law for release of prisoners generally and noted there was no system in place for objectively measuring whether a prisoner had engaged constructively during his/her sentence.

To remedy this, the committee supported calls for legislation that would provide for structured release, temporary release, parole and community return.

It also called for an increased use of open prisons and measures to improve conditions across the State’s prisons.

The Irish Penal Reform Trust urged the Government to act swiftly on the strategy set out by the committee.


‘Major obstacle’
“A major obstacle to reform in the past has been the politicisation of crime policy,” said its executive director, Liam Herrick. It was “very significant” that there was now cross-party consensus on what needed to change in the penal system.

AdVic, an advocacy group for families of homicide victims, criticised the proposal to increase standard remission, saying it should not be applied to prisoners serving sentences for murder or manslaughter.

The group also expressed concern about the recommendation for increased use of open prisons. “The practice of sending serious offenders to open prisons should be stopped,” it said.