The number of people being sent to jail for non-payment of fines has surged to more than 7,400 — an increase of 60% in just three years.
Prison reform campaigners and opposition TDs have branded the situation a “shameful waste” of money, costing taxpayers €2m a year.
Despite pledges from the Government that a new computer system allowing a spaced repayments system would help drastically cut the number of those jailed, the figures have soared from 4,350 in 2009 to 7,467 last year. The huge rise comes despite the introduction of laws ensuring imprisonment is used as a last resort.
Justice Minister Alan Shatter said the Fines Act would bring in “a number of measures to prevent the automatic imprisonment of fine defaulters”.
The law allows for the payment of fines by instalments over a year, or over two years in extreme cases.
Problems with the courts service computer system have been blamed for the current situation.
Irish Penal Reform Trust executive director Liam Herrick said: “The wasteful practice of imprisoning people for fines default is costing the State well over €2m per year in courts, garda, and prison service resources. The costs of making the necessary upgrades to the courts ICT system to process payments by instalment has been given as €400,000, so it makes no sense at all to persist with the damaging practice of sending people to prison for failure to pay court-ordered fines.
“Fines defaulters also make up the vast majority of women committed to prison,” said Mr Herrick.
“And the State does not even get the original fine money back after spending all that money on court appearances and prison. No one benefits from the current system.
“The figures are also probably higher as this is the first year they are only stating how many individual people were jailed, not adding on those sent to prison more than once.”
Mr Shatter released the figures in response to Dáil questions from Independent TD Patrick Nulty. A spokesperson for Mr Shatter said: “The Criminal Justice (Community Service) (Amendment) Act 2011 requires judges, when considering imposing a sentence of imprisonment of 12 months or less, to first consider the appropriateness of community service as an alternative to imprisonment.
“The Government has also approved the drafting of a Fines (Amendment) Bill which, when enacted, should all but eliminate the committal of people to prison for the non-payment of fines.”
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