Judges told to limit jail sentences for petty crime
Judges will be obliged in future to consider community service as an alternative to imprisonment when sentencing a person convicted of minor offences.
Under new legislation being introduced by Justice Minister Dermot Ahern, it will become mandatory for judges to consider the option for relatively minor crimes, instead of a three- to six-month sentence.
At the moment, it is up to a judge's discretion to determine whether community service should be used as a sanction.
The measure, which is expected to be enacted quickly, was announced yesterday by the minister as he officially opened a new block containing accommodation for 200 prisoners at Wheatfield Prison in west Dublin.
This will increase the capacity of the prison to more than 600 inmates, turning Wheatfield into the second-biggest jail in the State after Mountjoy.
Mr Ahern said the new campus at Thornton Hall would ultimately sort out the problem of prison accommodation but in the short to medium term the Government had to press ahead with a building programme to meet current needs.
Work would shortly begin on a new block in the Portlaoise/ Midlands prison complex with the potential to provide 300 extra spaces in 2012, while a new block in the Dochas women's centre would make 70 additional spaces available by the end of this year.
Fourteen refurbished cells in the female wing of Limerick were due to be occupied by the start of next month and he had recently approved the creation of another 100 spaces at Castlerea and 50 at Shelton Abbey while the first phase of Thornton would provide 400 cells to hold up to 700 inmates.
Mr Ahern admitted there had been a consistent increase in the total prisoner population in recent years and over the past 12 months it had jumped by 412, which represented a rise of almost 10.5pc in the number in custody.
The minister pointed out that he could not interfere with the independence of the judiciary and was not allowed to discuss his proposals with them on changes in the sentencing laws.
But he believed that making community service an option for consideration in each case, where the offence was deemed to be minor and carried a jail sentence of six months or less, would make a difference.
One of the areas where it could be considered was for traffic offences, although he acknowledged that most of those jailed for those offences were either repeat offenders or had been convicted of a very serious crime such as dangerous driving causing death.
He said he had been assured by the Probation Service that they could cope with a three-fold increase in the number serving community service orders. The orders could help with community-based issues such as the removal of graffiti or helping out with tidy town clean-ups.
The new cells at the three-storey block in Wheatfield are between 12sq metres and 13 sq metres in size and fitted out with full in-cell sanitation, showers, sprinklers, TVs and call systems. Six of the ground floor cells are wheelchair accessible, while the block also has a segregation unit, a new medical centre to cater for the entire prison and a new kitchen to cater for the increased capacity.