Community service should replace shorter prison terms, says report
PRISON sentences of less than six months imposed for non-violent offences should be commuted and replaced with community service, according to a report on penal reform.
The Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice report has also recommended that the standard remission for prison sentences should be increased from one-quarter to a third.
An "enhanced" remission scheme of up to one half should also be made available on an incentivised basis for certain categories of prisoners, particularly those serving a sentence for the very first time.
This would include provisions for "earned temporary release".
The report follows the release from prison of Dublin businessman Paul Begley who secured temporary release to begin a community-return programme during the remainder of his two-year sentence for a garlic tax scam.
Begley has been granted permission to serve the final part of his sentence by participating in community-service projects under the supervision of the probation service.
The report, led by Labour senator Ivana Bacik, also calls for the introduction of new laws providing for structured release, temporary release, parole and community return to address issues such as prison conditions and overcrowding.
Ms Bacik said that the sub-committee, established in October 2011, was convened to look at "end of sentence" strategies to ensure a better rehabilitation of prisoners in custody and to encourage lower recidivism or reoffending rates.
"We recommend the introduction of a decarceration strategy, focussed on non-violent offenders," said Ms Bacik, who also said the Parole Board should be given full independence, placed on a statutory footing and given power to make binding recommendations on prisoner releases.
The sub-committee heard that the Parole Board remained "subject to political control" and this may bring Ireland into conflict with international human rights law. The report, launched by Oireachtas Justice committee chairman David Staunton, was produced in response to a recent rapid rise in prisoner numbers.
Justice Minister Alan Shatter is currently undertaking a strategic review into penal policy in Ireland and a separate committee is due to report in the coming months.
Overcrowding is the biggest problem in Irish prisons.
The average daily number of prisoners in custody in Ireland is 4,275, as of December 2012.
A total of 13,952 persons were committed to prison during 2011, compared to 9,711 in 2007.
Ireland's imprisonment rate has soared by 481pc since 1960.
The prison population rate rose by 57pc alone between 1995 and 2013, partly as a result of punitive policy during the 1990s when mandatory minimum sentences were introduced for a range of offences.
Prisoners serving mandatory minimum sentences are not allowed any form of early release.
Members of the sub-committee travelled to Finland and New York to examine prison initiatives there.
Responding to the all-party report, Liam Herrick, director of the Irish penal Reform Trust (IPRT), said that the sub-committee had methodically sifted through the evidence and had arrived at a clear and coherent strategy for reforming a system that was not working.
"A major obstacle to reform in the past has been the politicisation of crime policy," said Mr Herrick.
"It is very significant that we now have cross-party consensus on what needs to change in the wider penal system in order to make the system effective, efficient and to reduce reoffending after release."
John Costello, chairman of the Parole Board, commended the sub-committee and said that the first six months of release for prisoners were crucial.
"I see that as an essential element of penal reform," he said.