Punishment and rehabilitation

Pressure on prison system

Because of a rising prison population, robust data is required on the incidence of crime, detection rates, sentencing patterns and the use of probationary and community service orders. Forward planning demands a meticulous approach. It is particularly important in cases where women are being sent to overcrowded prisons for relatively minor offences.

Tension between judges and politicians over sentencing policy is a recurring feature because of the separation of powers under the Constitution. This independence of the judiciary had a moderating effect on early, populist-driven anti-drug legislation. More recently, however, it appears to have limited the benign impact community-based alternatives to prison might have delivered. Clear sentencing guidelines, prepared by a judicial council, would help in that regard. An Oireachtas committee’s recommendation that a cap be placed on the number of prisoners is, on the other hand, likely to be ignored.

The Irish Penal Reform Trust is particularly concerned about the treatment of women within the Courts system. Although the female prison system is overcrowded, there was a 24 per cent fall in the number of community service orders made by judges – as alternatives to prison sentences – between 2012 and 2015. Executive director of the IPRT Deirdre Malone said judges were required to consider community service orders, in cases involving sentences of 12 months or less, but some did not appear to be doing so. Legislation was designed to reduce the number of short-term prison sentences, she said, because it is not possible to provide effective rehabilitation services in the limited time available.

Prison numbers fell between 2011 and 2017, driven by the introduction of a more enlightened government policy that favoured the development of probation and community services; the mentoring of young offenders and cooperation between the Courts and the Garda. The tide has now turned and, for the past year, prison numbers have, once again, been nudging the 4,000 mark. Director General of the Prison Service Michael Donnellan recently drew attention to the “huge pressure” being created within prisons by drugs-related gangs and the need to segregate inmates for their own safety.


Reasons for the emerging situation can be traced to factors such as additional gardaí and higher detection rates for drug and sexual offence cases. CSO statistics for last year showed a rise in all types of crime, with the exception of homicide. Extended remand periods, the severity of sentences and reluctance by some judges to apply community-based sanctions are contributory factors. Politicians would like to cut the number of prisoners by half. For that to happen, investment in alternative sanctions and greater cooperation at official level will be required.