The Irish Times view on prison trends: numbers up

Numbers in the Garda are now close to record levels again, meaning more crimes detected and prosecuted – and more prisoners

 

A place of violence, chronic overcrowding and substance abuse for many decades, the Irish prison system underwent significant positive change during many of the recessionary years. Falling rates of recorded crime resulted in a knock-on reduction in prison committals and the overcrowding that had crippled the system began to ease.

That enabled refurbishment projects to take place in some jails. Mountjoy Prison, for example, appeared a lost cause until it was improved and in-cell sanitation installed in all cells. Rewards were introduced for those prisoners whose behaviour met a specified standard and who engaged with educational and other services.

In short, once overcrowding eased, the Irish Prison Service finally had the opportunity to attempt new and more progressive ideas. There are signs, however, that the worrying problem of overcrowding is returning. Numbers in the Garda are now close to record levels again, meaning more crimes detected and prosecuted.

Criminality linked to higher disposable incomes, such as drug-related and alcohol-related offences, also show signs of increase. Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan has made much of the fact that the implementation of the Fines Act has resulted in far fewer fine defaulters being sent to prison because they were now being dealt with in other, non-custodial, ways. However, for years fine defaulters were being processed into a prison’s database in the reception area and then being “released” without serving any prison time proper. It means their removal from the prison system has not freed up any beds.

The increase in the daily prisoner population has seen it nudge above 4,000 once again. This was driven last year by a 15 per cent increase in the number of new prisoners committed to jail to serve a sentence. More than two thirds of these were jailed for 12 months or less and for crimes at the lower end of the spectrum. Commuting as many of these short sentences as possible to non-custodial sanctions should be examined by Government immediately.

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