The number of people being jailed has reached its lowest level since 2008 after a major drop in committals last year, figures show.
Provisional data from the Irish Prison Service shows a reduction of 12% in the number of committals and an 11% fall in the number of people being committed (some are sent to jail more than once in a year).
The statistics show:
Prison sources said the figures are provisional and could change. A reduction in the jailing of fine defaulters could explain much of the drop. A new system allowing offenders to pay court fines by instalments was introduced in January 2016.
Fíona Ní Chinnéide, acting executive director of the Irish Penal Reform Trust, agreed.
“The fall in committals is most likely due to the commencement of the Fines Act 2014, with the IPS director general reporting a decrease of 15% in fines committals,” said Ms Ní Chinnéide.
However, she said there were still around 8,000 committals for fine-defaulting and called on the Government to consider a “potential amnesty”, given the “significant burden” on jails.
She expressed concern that numbers in prison were beginning to “drift upwards” in 2017 and said it was “particularly disappointing” that the new Cork Prison had been operating at or above its maximum capacity.
She called for renewed energy around community service schemes, which had “safely managed to safely reduce the numbers in Cork Prison in recent years”.
Prison sources pointed out that, despite the reduction in committals, the average custody numbers (those in prison on a given day) has remained relatively static in the last two years.
There were 3,706 people in custody on January 31 2015, 3,697 on January 31, 2016, and 3,690 on January 31 2017.
Fine defaulters are typically in and out within hours (or same day) and do not affect custody numbers.
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