AT LAST, progress is being made. Following a delay of nearly a year, a Fines Bill has been passed by the Dáil and has gone to the Seanad for its approval. With luck, the draft legislation will become law by the summer and members of the judiciary will give effect to its provisions later this year. The outcome could save the taxpayer a heap of money while reducing pressure on an overcrowded prison system.
It has taken more than a decade of campaigning to reach this point. Prison visiting committees, prison chaplains, Fine Gael and the Law Reform Commission have all urged the Government to end the crazy system whereby offenders are routinely sent to jail for personal debt and the non-payment of fines. The cost to the State of keeping an offender in prison for a week has been estimated at more than €2,000, a sum in excess of the great majority of court fines.
The issue of imprisonment for debt has yet to be tackled and, as the effects of recession spread, it will become more urgent. The Law Reform Commission proposed the establishment of a central debt enforcement office that would divert most cases away from the courts. Such an approach would provide cheaper, quicker, non-judicial debt settlements through the attachment of earnings. It would distinguish between “will not pay” and “cannot pay” individuals, with the former remaining exposed to imprisonment.
Reforms in both of these areas could free up an estimated 2,000 prison places. At a time when the prison system is under intense pressure because of overcrowding, drug taking and an emerging gang culture, any reduction in numbers would help.
Minister for Justice and Law Reform Dermot Ahern should instruct his officials to prioritise a new approach to debt enforcement. The Fines Bill provides a rough template. It requires the courts to take account of an offender’s ability to pay. It provides for instalment payments and, where these are not adhered to, for the seizure and sale of assets, be it a car or other property. It envisages a “name and shame” process where payments are deliberately withheld. It supports the making of community service orders. And where these measures do not work, it accepts that imprisonment should be retained as an ultimate sanction. The great majority of citizens are willing to pay personal fines and debts, provided due account is taken of their financial circumstances. The State will save money and society will benefit if legislative action is taken on that basis.