Making prison work better

The number of offenders in Irish prisons has increased sharply in recent years, even though the crime rate has fallen, down 13 per cent since 2008. By 2011,the prison population had risen by one third in four years. And, as the average annual cost of each prison place is estimated at €65,359, both the cost of detention and the effectiveness of the prison system, either in deterring crime or in rehabilitating offenders, has been questioned.The Oireachtas Committee on Justice in its report on penal reform now favours a radical change of approach. It has asked the Government to commit to a one third reduction in prison numbers over the next ten years.That will save money and - if the committee's recommendations are fully implemented - should result both in a better prison service, and a safer society. While past decades have seen a succession of reports on various aspects of prison and penal reform, little fundamental change has occurred in this area.

Can this report make a difference? The Oireachtas committee clearly thinks so. Its recommendations reflect cross-party support on crime policy, which all too often in the past has been politicised for party advantage. The committee's blueprint for change is based on reforms that have worked elsewhere, in Finland. And there is no reason to believe the Finnish model cannot work here, if rigorously followed.

The committee recommends that those receiving custodial sentences of less than six months for non-violent crimes should do community service, rather than serve time in jail. Finland adopted this approach in 2005, and it has proved effective in reducing its prison population. In Ireland, offenders sentenced to short terms in custody - six months or less - are likely be released after a couple of weeks, because of overcrowding in our prisons. In 2011, this would have included many of the 7000 people who were committed to prison for the non-payment of fines. Sentences passed are not fully served by some, while overcrowding has made it more difficult for the prison service to engage in rehabilitation work with prisoners in order to reduce their risk of re-offending. Finland's success in reducing prison numbers, however, has relied heavily on community work serving as a real alternative to a custodial sentence. And since 2005, its prison population has fallen by a quarter.

There is need to strike a better balance between crime, punishment and the rehabilitation of offenders to ensure they do not become repeat offenders. This report points the way. Minister for Justice Alan Shatter has already set up a working group to carry out a strategic review of penal policy. Clearly the political will for penal reform exists. As the Irish Penal Reform Trust has noted the report offers a "once in a lifetime opportunity for real and lasting change". It should be taken.