Court-fine defaulters will be forced to clean graffiti
PEOPLE who fail to pay court fines will end up removing graffiti or painting and landscaping in their communities rather then spending time in jail under new measures.
Imprisonment will now be a last resort for someone who has defaulted on a payment, following yesterday's Cabinet decision to act on the recommendations from the Probation Service to dramatically increase community service places.
The Government increased the number of Community Service Orders (CSOs) from 1,600 to 6,000 following an upsurge in the numbers going to jail for failure to pay charges such as road traffic fines.
A total of 3,500 people were jailed last year for failing to pay court-ordered fines -- including more than 60 who ignored fines for not having a TV licence.
The massive number of people being jailed for non-payment of court fines comes at a time when jails are suffering from chronic overcrowding.
The six-fold increase in community service places means defaulters will now repay their debt by removing graffiti, painting, landscaping, grass cutting, cleaning graveyards, working with youth clubs and community groups and maintaining community facilities.
The offenders will have to undertake unpaid work for a number of hours ranging from 40 to 240, usually to be completed in a 12-month period.
The move will free up prison spaces and reduce the high cost of staying in jail.
Justice Minister Dermot Ahern said people will still have to pay their debt but rather than serve it in prison at "great cost" to the taxpayer, they can do it by serving the community.
"We must have sanctions against those who blatantly ignore fines imposed by the courts, no system can operate without sanctions. But the changes I have announced today provide for a remedy which does not necessarily mean imprisonment at great expense," Mr Ahern said.
In future, when a fine is imposed by a court, a recovery order will also be imposed. If the fine is not paid, the recovery order will be activated and a receiver will be appointed to recover goods to the value of the fine.
Where there are no goods, the fine defaulter will be summonsed back to court where a community service order can be imposed on them.
"Only where the community service order is not complied with or where the person refused to co-operate with the Community Service Order will prison be then considered," the minister added.
The legal changes will be introduced in the Fines Bill, which is currently going through the Dail.
Fine Gael's justice spokesman Charlie Flanagan said it was "preposterous" to be jailing people who are losing their jobs and struggling to make ends meet and simply cannot afford debts and fines.
Amid the recent surge in imprisonments, Mr Flanagan argued for an increase in CSOs and had urged Mr Ahern to "see sense".
The increase in CSOs came after figures revealed there has been a jump of more than 150pc in the numbers jailed for failing to pay fines since 2007.
At least 62 of those jailed in the past year were thrown in prison for failing to pay court fines imposed for not having the €160 television licence. That figure has doubled since 2006, when just 31 were jailed for this offence.
Figures show 3,366 people were jailed in the first 10 months of last year because they refused to, or were unable to, pay fines. This compares to just 2,520 in 2008 and 1,335 in 2007.