The number of people being sent to prison has halved in the last three years due to a massive reduction in the jailing of fine defaulters.
However, despite the fall in the imprisonment of fine defaulters, prison authorities say there has been an actual increase in the number of people in prison, due to a rise in committals for non-fine-related offences.
The apparent contradiction is explained by a range of factors: Fine committals effectively never affected daily custody numbers (as most were released soon after they arrived); a rise in non-fine committals and, within that, a rise in remand prisoners who are being held for longer, and a significant reduction in the number of prisoners out on temporary release.
Provisional figures provided to the Irish Examiner by the Irish Prison Service (IPS) show that committals for non-payment of court fines have plummeted, from almost 9,900 in 2015 to just over 450 in 2018, a drop of 95%.
This stems from legal changes which gave judges a range of non-custodial options for fine defaulters, particularly the ability to pay fines by installment.
The drop in fine committals resulted in a reduction in total prison committals of more than 50% since 2015.
Provisional IPS data shows:
A person can be sent to prison more than once in a year, so the number of people being jailed for fine defaulting dropped from 14,182 in 2015 to 6,496 in 2018 (down 54%). It is down 13% on 2017 (7,484).
Committals for non-payment of fines rose dramatically between 2008 and 2011, from 2,520 to 7,514.
After a slight fall in the subsequent two years, it rose to 8,140 in 2014 and reached a peak of 9,883 in 2015 (60% of all committals in that year).
The practice of jailing people who failed to pay fines had created an administrative and staffing crisis for the prison system.
It put an enormous burden on prisons and brought the whole system into disrepute, as the vast majority of fine defaulters had to be released within hours or the following day because of space shortages in jails.
Committals fell to 8,400 in 2016 after the introduction of non-custodial options.
The main element of this was a new method to pay fines by installment.
This was provided for in the Fines (Payment and Recovery) Act 2014, but did not become operational until January 2016.
By 2017, the figure was slashed to 2,261.
The IPS said that, despite the dramatic fall in fine committals, the actual number in custody on an average day has risen.
“2018 saw a significant increase in numbers in custody over a short period of time,” it said.
There were 3,646 prisoners in custody on December 31, 2017, and 3,911 on the same day in 2018, an increase of 7%.
The trend has continued this year, with 4,028 people in prison as of March 29.
It said that, excluding fines, committals have “increased”, from 6,660 in 2016, to 7,026 in 2017 and to 7,616 in 2018, up 14% over two years.
The IPS cited the rise in the number of remand prisoners as a factor, with numbers increasing from 541 in January 2017 to 667 in January 2018 and to 714 last January, up 32% in two years.
Commenting, Fíona Ní Chinnéide of the Irish Penal Reform Trust said: “The significant decrease in committals to prison for fines default is very welcome, but masks a worrying return to rising numbers in prison, including increasing use of pre-trial detention.”
IPS data also shows that the number of females in custody increased, from 108 in 2017 to 153 in 2018, rising to 169 by the end of last January, an overall jump of 56%.
Eoin Carroll, of the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice, welcomed the “positive impact” of the fines legislation, including on overall committals to prisons.
However, he described the drop “as masking the reality that, other than a reduction in the number of people being sent to prison for fines, the overall picture is an increase in committals”.
Mr Carroll said a detailed analysis is needed as to what is happening in relation to female offenders.