Sending 10pc fewer to jail could save €17m
Savings of up to €17m in taxpayers' money will be achieved if even 10pc of prisoners serving sentences of six months or less are diverted to community service, it was learnt last night.
Costs are spurring on the initiative to make greater use of the community service programme for minor offenders.
At the moment, supervisors working in the service are being utilised at only a third of capacity because of the small numbers being ordered by the courts to carry out community work rather than being sent to jail.
It was also learnt that only a handful of district court judges are responsible for the vast majority of the decisions to opt for community service.
There are 64 district court judges sitting around the country in 124 court venues.
But figures obtained by the Irish Independent show that, until recently, only 12 courts were responsible for 60pc of the community orders while 29 of the judges accounted for 80pc. A study of sentencing options, carried out by the Department of Justice, showed that 7,500 offenders were jailed for terms of six months or less last year and if even 10pc of those had been ordered to carry out community service instead, the savings achieved would have been between €14m and €17m.
This was one of the factors considered by Justice Minister Dermot Ahern before publishing new legislation aimed at encouraging the courts to make greater use of the service.
Mr Ahern said last night that the changes required relatively minor amendments to the law and he was putting a slim bill, with only 13 sections, before the Dail and Seanad early in the new year.
He was confident that the bill would be passed and enacted before the Dail ended.
At present, there is no onus on district court judges to take account of the community service option. But the legislation will ensure that it must be considered as an alternative before reaching a decision on sentence for crimes involving punishment of six months or less.
The legislation is being carefully worded to avoid interference with the independence of the judiciary. But legal experts are satisfied it will help to pave the way for more community orders without creating any problems with the courts.