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Jailings for not paying tiny fines up 25 per cent

THE number of people being sent to jail for failing to pay paltry court fines has soared by 25 per cent in just two years.

New figures obtained by the Sunday Independent showed a huge rise in the numbers of cash-strapped citizens who were being locked up because they could not afford to pay the fines.

But the State then had to pick up the tab for their stay in prison.

According to the Irish Prison Service (IPS), it costs an average of €65,000 a year to keep a prisoner behind bars.

Figures obtained from Justice Minister Alan Shatter revealed a total of 8,304 were jailed for failing to pay court-imposed fines in 2012.

This compares to 7,514 in 2011 and 6,683 in 2010, which represents a 25 per cent increase within 24 months.

Court fines are imposed for a host of minor infringements, including driving offences and public order offences as well as more serious infringements such as assault and causing damage to property.

Confirmation of the significant jump in the numbers of those being jailed was contained in documents sent by Mr Shatter's top official, Department of Justice Secretary General Brian Purcell, to the Public Accounts Committee.

Mr Purcell declined to detail how much the cost of imprisoning those guilty of not paying court fines was.

"This would necessitate a manual search of each record and would require a disprop-ortionate amount of staff time and effort," Mr Purcell said.

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However, according to the most recent IPS annual report, the average cost of imprisonment per prisoner was €65,404 last year, not including education spend. This was a slight increase to €65,359 in 2011, but less that the €70,513 spent in 2010 and €77,222 the previous year.

In 2010, the then Justice Minister Dermot Ahern introduced legislation aimed at ending the jailing of people for the non-payment of fines.

But technological problems and a failure of systems across various arms of government have rendered that bill ineffectual.

Last week, Mr Shatter published the Fines (Payment and Recovery) Bill 2013. Like the Ahern bill, it is aimed at ending the practice of jailing people for minor offences.

Once this is in force, people who are subjected to fines will have the option of paying it back in 12-month instalments rather than face jail.

Failing that, the court will be able to make an attachment order to the person's earnings, appoint a receiver to collect the money or insist the person involved carry out community service.

Mr Shatter said he hoped the new bill would be enacted before the end of the year and be operational by 2014.

However, within the past few days, Mr Shatter's department was forced to concede that administration costs and payment limits meant it was not possible to deduct unpaid court fines from social welfare benefits.

But Fianna Fail justice spokesman Niall Collins last night claimed this was "nonsense".

"The failure to include social welfare payments is another slap in the face of the working man. It is nonsense that the systems can't cope," he said.

The IPS insisted that the majority of people who were jailed for not paying court fines did not spend a "huge amount of time" in prison.

"Many are out within hours," a spokesman told the Sunday Independent.

The IPS also said that just "12 or 13" of the overall prison population of around 4,300 were in jail at any given time for non-payment of fines.

The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT), which has long campaigned against the jailing of people for the non-payment of fines, said the figures showed that the system held no fear for people who were clearly choosing a few hours in prison over paying the fine.

"It is clear that for those who have been in prison before, the prospect of a few hours in prison is preferable to paying the fines, so there is no fear," IPRT director Liam Herrick said.

"For others who have never fallen foul, going to jail is deeply humiliating and stressful and is unjust given the crime. The system doesn't work."

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