The number of people being jailed for failing to pay court fines has fallen by around 1,000 following the introduction of laws aimed at effectively eliminating the sanction, writes Cormac O’Keefe, Irish Examiner reporter.
And officials believe the trend will grow significantly over the coming years as the effects of the new system — only introduced at the start of the year — kicks in fully.
The imprisonment of offenders for failing to pay court-ordered fines has put enormous strain on the prison system, with numbers increasing almost four-fold between 2008 and 2015 — from 2,520 committals to 9,892 committals.
Fine committals accounted for 60% of all 17,200 committals to prisons in 2015. The system was brought into disrepute as the main committal prisons were forced to spend time and resources processing fine defaulters into the prison, only to release most of them within a few hours.
“We can confirm that preliminary figures show there has been a reduction in 2016, to the end of October, of about 1,000 or 10% on the previous year,” said an Irish Prison Service spokesman.
However, he stressed these were just initial figures and that it would take time for the full effects of the system to show.
It is estimated that between 7,000 and 7,300 fine defaulters have been jailed to the end of October this year, down around 1,000 on the same time last year.
The four main committal prisons take the bulk of fine defaulters and have long highlighted the impact of the sanction on their resources.
So far this year, Mountjoy Prison has taken in around 1,400 fine defaulters, while Cork Prison, the Midlands Prison, and Dóchas Women’s Prison have each taken in the region of 1,000 defaulters.
A higher percentage of fine defaulters, compared to all committals, are women, the bulk going to Dóchas.
While there is no data yet available on the dates of the penal warrants for this year’s committals, sources expect many of them, if not most, are “legacy warrants” from before the introduction of the instalment system.
There are considerable numbers of penal warrants outstanding and awaiting execution, with the Garda Inspectorate estimating there were almost 89,000 such warrants on hand in 2014.
Legislation to tackle the issue of jailing fine defaulters was initially enacted almost six years ago, but a key part of it — the payment of fines by instalment — has been bedevilled by a range of technical, legal, and resource issues.
Figures show that the numbers of people jailed for failing to pay court fines increased rapidly in the last eight years, rising from 2,520 in 2008, to 6,683 in 2010, and to 8,304 in 2012, before reaching its peak at almost 10,000 last year. Updated legislation, the Fines (Payment and Recovery) Act was enacted in April 2014.
The main aims of the act were: Support the administration of justice when fines are imposed by the courts; ensure that the fines imposed by the courts are collected; and reduce, to the minimum possible, the number of people committed to prison for non-payment of fines.
Under the act, those who refuse to pay a court fine face a number of sanctions, before the ultimate one of imprisonment is considered.
These include an attachment of earnings order, the appointment of a receiver to collect the fine, and community service. The attachment of earnings order only applies to those with a wage and does not apply to those on social welfare.
The Courts Service awarded a tender to run the instalment system to An Post, which began operating it in January. There is no information available yet as to how it is functioning.
This article first appeared in the Irish Examiner.