Friday 22 November 2019

Inmates jailed for less than five year should have sentences halved - campaigners

Sarah Stack

INMATES jailed for less than five years should have their sentences halved to tackle chronic overcrowding, campaigners have claimed.

A parole board should also be appointed to decide when convicted killers jailed for life are freed, instead of the minister for justice.

The measures were called for by the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) and detailed in its position paper on reform of remission, temporary release and parole, launched at the Distillery Building near the Four Courts.

Liam Herrick, IPRT executive director, said a smaller prison population would result in more inmates getting better rehabilitation before their release back into the community.

"At present the biggest obstacle to the prison system operating effectively is the chronic overcrowding throughout the system," he said.

"At the same time, for many prisoners there are no clear guidelines as to what they must do within prison to address their offending in order to move towards release.

"While recent efforts to divert minor offenders away from prisons are important, our current system of deciding when prisoners are released is most urgently in need of change."

There are an average 4,300 prisoners in jails across the country each night, but the inspector of prisons stated there is room for less than 4,000.

Mr Herrick said a better justice system could be run if:

- Remission was increased from 25pc to 50pc for sentences under five years and to 33% for sentences over five years - with up to 50pc for those who engage with services as part of incentivised regimes - bringing Ireland into line with international rates like in Scotland, England and Wales, New Zealand and France.

- A more transparent system of temporary release, setting out clear criteria, should be used for compassionate release, weekend release (maintaining family relationships) and day-to-day release for work, instead of it being used in an ad hoc manner to manage prison overcrowding.

- There should be incentives for prisoners to engage constructively with services, and decisions on early release made openly and transparently on that basis.

- An independent statutory Parole Board should be established to take over decision-making on the release of life-sentenced and long-sentenced prisoners, and removing the role of the Justice Minister in the decision.

- The Justice Minister should also consider making use of the right of pardon, and the power to commute or remit punishment, to bring the prison population within the safe custody limits. The IPRT suggests an amnesty for some or all fines defaulters would ease pressure on strained prison resources.

Mr Herrick said systems in place at the moment do not help prisoners or society.

"IPRT believes that our current systems of remission, temporary release and parole afford too much discretion to Government and should be replaced by more open and transparent systems of release, in line with the principles of due process and fairness," he added.

"We also believe that a more structured and fair system will help identify an increased number of prisoners who can be safely released back into the community.

"Reform along the lines we propose will create a more incentive-driven system, reducing overcrowding while also improving community safety."

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