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Poorest criminalised for essentially civil wrongs

The practice of locking people up for relatively minor offences is nothing new: it has been a long-standing political failure.

For years, the poorest and most vulnerable people in our midst have been criminalised for what, at heart, are civil wrongs such as non-payment of debts, fines, TV and dog licences.

Thousands of people who could not afford to pay debts such as credit union arrears were sent to prison each year until 2009 when the High Court ruled that there were not appropriate safeguards in place for civil debtors before they were sent to jail.

The non-payment of fines also saw large numbers of people sent to jail, often for a few hours due to overcrowding in prisons.

In 2010, the President signed the Fines Act 2010 into law. It was designed to prevent fine defaulters being sent to jail by allowing judges to impose alternatives to imprisonment, such as instalment orders, attachment of earnings and the appointment of receivers where debtors defaulted on paying fines.

But the initiative, which sought to distinguish between the 'can't pays' and 'won't pays', floundered because of uncertainty about the legal basis for instalment orders and IT system implementation problems.

The initiative is still not fully operational, resulting in judges sending defaulters – who have increased in number – to jail in the absence of alternatives.

There is also the question of strategic default.

For many, a short return trip to Mountjoy – which expunges the fine – is better than having a debt to pay back.

Irish Independent