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Shatter ramps up criticism on jailing of minor offenders

JUSTICE Minister Alan Shatter has again criticised judges after new figures revealed a massive surge in the number of people being jailed for minor offences, such as failure to pay fines.

Instances of people being jailed for terms of three months or less have jumped by 17.6pc in the past two years, according to new figures released by the Prison Service.

And in total, over 8,300 people were jailed last year for not paying fines.

The figures come a week after Mr Shatter rapped judges for not making more use of community service as an alternative to short jail sentences.

And although the minister insisted he had no quarrel with the judiciary, he described as "disappointing" the failure of judges to issue more community service orders. "These figures show we are out of kilter with Europe and other parts of the world," he said.

"It is clear that too many offenders serve short sentences of three months or less, which is neither of benefit to the State or to victims of crime nor act as a deterrent to reoffending."

Mr Shatter's comments, made after he launched the annual reports of the Prison Service and Probation Service, come as the latest in a series of clashes with the judiciary over sentencing policy and pay.

The minister again suggested judges were underutilising legislation he introduced in 2011 obliging the courts to consider community service if appropriate.

"It is disappointing to note that 2,569 community service orders were made in 2012 compared to 2,738 in 2011," he said.

"Some of the learning from elsewhere is that short sentences don't always affect a deterrent impact and it is important that we look at what isn't working to see how we can do things differently so that we can get better results."

The vast majority of people jailed for non-payment of fines do not serve full sentences and are allowed out early – some after just a few hours – on temporary release.

A snapshot of the prison population on November 30 last year showed that 40 people were in jail that day on sentences of less than three months, with 18 of those in custody for not paying fines.

The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) said the legislation requiring judges to consider community service orders was not having a fast enough impact in reducing prisoner numbers.

IPRT executive director Liam Herrick urged Mr Shatter to "take radical action now, such as commuting all sentences of under six months, introducing an amnesty for fines, and increasing standard remission to 33pc, with incentivised enhanced remission of 50pc."

According to the Prison Service annual report:

• The daily average number of inmates in 2012 was 4,318, compared with 4,390 in 2011

• A total 13,860 people were sent to jail in 2012, a slight decrease on the 13,952 jailed in 2011; 84.5pc were male and 15.5pc female.

The report also revealed the cost of incarcerating a prisoner rose slightly last year to €65,404.

Irish Independent