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Warrants backlog allowing criminals to walk the streets

EXTRA garda resources are to be allocated to help clear a backlog of more than 37,000 bench warrants.

Thousands of criminal suspects are walking the streets because warrants issued by judges are not being enforced.

New figures from the Department of Justice show gardai are struggling to find and arrest criminals and bring them before the courts if they fail to show up voluntarily.

The problem is being fuelled by the fact that significant numbers of warrants are being issued in respect of people who have failed to pay modest fines.

On May 10, gardai had 37,394 warrants classified as "unexecuted".

The Justice Department said it could not give details of the average time to execute a warrant, but pointed to 2008 figures that showed the majority were dealt with within three months.

The Herald has learned that Garda Commissioner Fatchna Murphy has raised the issue with each Regional Assistant Commissioner.

Measures aimed at reducing the number of warrants on hand have been identified and these are being implemented.

They include the reassignment of additional gardai to this function and the appointment of inspectors with responsibility for execution of outstanding warrants.

"The position is being closely monitored by senior Garda management, and consideration will be given, at an organisational level, to introducing further measures to address the issue if necessary," said Justice Minister Dermot Ahern.

"It is inevitable in any criminal justice system that at any given time there will be a significant number of warrants awaiting execution. The Garda authorities are committed to strengthening the warrants enforcement process."

According to the minister the "vast majority of the outstanding bench warrants relate to unpaid fines for modest sums, arising from minor infractions of the law and not convictions arising from violent and other serious crime".

"An Garda Siochana gives priority to the execution of warrants in respect of serious crime."

Legislation introduced last year allows for payment of fines by instalments and a revised means of assessing the capacity of a person to pay a fine. It is hoped this will reduce the number of people before the courts for defaulting on fines.

"Furthermore, the Enforcement of Court Orders (Amendment) Act, 2009, ensures that a debtor cannot be imprisoned if he or she is unable to pay the debt and will tend to result in a smaller number of warrants being issued," the minister said.