LEGISLATION being approved by the Government today will drastically reduce the numbers being sent to jail by the courts for non-payment of fines.
Latest figures show that a total of 8,300 people were jailed by judges last year because they had not paid their fines.
They comprise the vast majority of those locked up on short-term sentences.
But the Prison Service pointed out last night that the number of offenders imprisoned at any time for non-payment of fines constituted an "extremely small" part of the prisoner population.
An examination of the prison population nationwide last Tuesday showed that only four out of 4,230 jailings were fine-related.
The legislation is being introduced by Justice Minister Alan Shatter, who will tell his cabinet colleagues tomorrow that prison is not the answer to the non-payment of a fine, apart from exceptional circumstances.
"The resources expended by all involved in the justice system, from the judiciary to the gardai to the courts service to the prisons, is staggering at a time when resources are at a premium," he said.
Mr Shatter pointed out that he was not sanguine about the non-payment of fines. "For our justice system to work, it must have the capacity to detect crime, prosecute offenders and where they are convicted by the courts, ensure compliance with whatever sanction the courts impose," he added.
"Where fines are concerned, this means collecting the fine."
It was regrettable, he said, that around 30pc of fines were not paid.
Mr Shatter's proposed Fines (Payment and Recovery) Bill was intended to address this in a number of ways that avoided the need to send defaulters to prison.
The legislation will allow fines to be paid by instalments over 12 months and where a person is in default, an attachment order can be made, requiring the offender's employer to collect the fine and pay it to the courts.
It also provides for a judge to impose a community service order where the fines have not been paid.
Mr Shatter said he was confident the proposals would achieve a significant reduction in the numbers being committed to jail while protecting the principle that sentences imposed by the courts must be served.
Mr Shatter added that, subject to the approval of the Government, his proposed legislation would be published this week.