Saturday 15 December 2018

Seeing sense on jail for debtors

DURING the first 10 months of last year, an astonishing 3,366 people were imprisoned for refusing or failing to pay court fines. Most of them had committed road traffic offences, but they also included at least 62 people jailed for failing to pay fines imposed for not having a television licence.

And after years of protest about the extraordinary number of people jailed for not paying fines, it emerges that the number has gone up instead of down, increasing at a rate of roughly 1,000 a year.

The situation is made all the more intolerable by the fact that the prisons are overcrowded. During 2008, nine of them operated at or above "full capacity".

Last year, the annual cost of keeping a person in prison rose by 8.6pc, to €92,717. How much additional cost, one wonders, does the paperwork involve?

Thankfully, a partial remedy is in prospect. The Fines Bill, introduced by Justice Minister Dermot Ahern, is expected to become law this year.

It will allow for the payment of fines by instalments and for assessment of capacity to pay. It will empower the courts to impose community service orders on defaulters instead of jailing them.

These are sensible and humane measures. But they are also belated measures. They alleviate a system which reminds us, if not of the Middle Ages, certainly of the debtors' prisons described by Charles Dickens.

But of course Dickens's prisoners, in pre-television times, did not have to worry about paying TV licences.

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