A MASSIVE 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.
nd despite chronic overcrowding in the country's jails, the number of people who are put behind bars for minor offences is set to soar even further this year.
New figures obtained by the Irish Independent reveal 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.
Courts can impose fines of up to €1,000 for a first offence and up to €2,000 for second and subsequent offences.
The new figures have highlighted the urgency for new legislation to cut down on the number jailed for inability to pay fines.
A Fines Bill, introduced by Justice Minister Dermot Ahern, is expected to become law later this year.
It will allow for the payment of fines by instalments and will allow for the assessment of a person's capacity to pay.
The bill will also give the courts power to impose community service orders on people who don't pay fines in time, rather than sending them to prison.
Figures obtained by the Irish Independent 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.
In the majority of those cases, people were jailed for non-payment of road traffic fines.
Opposition TDs last night said an alternative to jail sentences must be found immediately. "Hard-pressed families and private debt is at an all-time high. Families are suffering financial hardship," Fine Gael justice spokesman Charlie Flanagan said. "We need to distinguish between those who cannot pay and those who will not pay," he said.
The latest annual report of the Irish Prison Service revealed how nine of the country's prisons were operating at or above full capacity during 2008.
The number committed to prisons for all offences jumped from 11,934 in 2007 to 13,557 the following year. At the same time the cost of keeping someone in prison for a year jumped by 8.6pc to €92,717, placing even further strain on resources.
Justice Minister Dermot Ahern said he expected the number of people imprisoned for non-payment of fines to "fall substantially" once the new legislation comes into force.
Over the past five years, 231 people have been jailed for non-payment of fines following court proceedings taken by An Post for not having a television licence.
Mr Ahern stressed it was only a "tiny fraction" of the overall prisoner population.
An Post collected more than €226m from television licence fees -- including €55m from the Department of Social and Family Affairs to cover the 376,000 given out to those who qualify for household benefits. A significant proportion of the monies are used to fund RTE.
"The emphasis here is on facilitating people in paying their TV licence, not in penalising those who, for whatever reason, don't pay," a spokesman for An Post, which got €12.4m for collecting the fee, said.
"Of course, there are pressures on household budgets at a time of downturn, and television licences are no different in this regard to any other utility payment."
The spokesman stressed people were not jailed for not possessing a television licence, but for failing to pay the court fines imposed for no licence.
More than 19,000 cash-strapped households last year turned to MABS -- the State's Monetary Advice and Budgeting Service -- for help dealing with debts in a difficult jobs market.