Judges told to make more use of community service
JUSTICE Minister Alan Shatter has rapped some judges for opting to send offenders to jail for up to a year rather than making greater use of community service orders.
The minister said he was extremely concerned at the uneven application of the orders around the country and he did not know the reason for the disparity.
He believed that in certain parts of the country, district court judges were not opting for the orders as frequently as their colleagues elsewhere.
Mr Shatter said the aim was to reduce the number of offenders handed jail sentences of up to a year by ordering them to carry out work within the community.
It was not his role to interfere with the judiciary but it was important that every judge at least consider the alternative of community service in cases where that would be appropriate.
"In many cases, the philosophy of the short, sharp shock of imprisonment had been proven to be a myth," he added.
He pointed out that more than 11,000 offenders sentenced to jail terms of up to a year had passed through the prison system last year and about 8,000 of them were for non-payment of fines.
The latter category would be taken out of the system when new legislation, enabling unpaid fines to be taken from a person's earnings, came into force and the rest could be reduced through greater use of community service.
Apart from impacting on the size of the prison population, it would also cost the taxpayer less as it is estimated it costs €66,000 a year to keep one offender behind bars.
Mr Shatter said he accepted that there were circumstances where offenders would have to be imprisoned and greater emphasis could then be placed on providing them with skills to help them integrate back into the community when they were released.
At the launch of the Irish Prison Service annual report, the minister said he was encouraged to note the first significant decrease in the numbers sent to prison since 2007.
Figures showed that 13,055 offenders were jailed last year, compared to 13,860 in 2012, representing a drop of 5.8pc.
The daily average number of prisoners in custody in 2013 was also down to 4,158, compared with 4,318 the previous year.
Prison Service director general Michael Donnellan said the number of prisoners in a restricted regime had dropped by 32pc from 339 in July last to 228 by the end of the year while those on 22 or 23-hour lock-up had fallen by almost 76pc – from 211 to 50.
This had been achieved, he added, by a high-level review, which aimed at ensuring that all prisoners had a minimum standard of three hours a day "out of cell" time.
The authorities had introduced a protection area in St Patrick's institution where offenders could mix rather than being locked up almost all day, which was not good for their mental health, he said.