Penal reformers have welcomed the massive drop in people being jailed for non-payment of court fines — but are concerned at the rise in prison numbers caused by more committals for non-fine offences.
The conflicting trends have emerged in statistics provided by the Irish Prison Service to the Irish Examiner following queries.
The figures show that committals for non-payment of court fines fell from almost 9,883 in 2015 to just 455 in 2018 — a cut of 95%.
This followed the implementation of legal changes, including a key provision at the start of 2016, which put in place a set of non-custodial options for judges for offenders who fail to pay a court fine.
This has meant the total number of committals to prisons has more than halved, from 17,206 in 2015 to 8,079 in 2018.
But other IPS figures show there has been a “significant” increase in the average daily prison population, rising from 3,646 on December 31, 2017 to 3,911 on the same date last year — a trend that has continued this year, with 4,028 people in custody on March 29 (up 10% in 15 months).
This is because committals, excluding for fines, have “increased” — from 6,660 in 2016, to 7,026 in 2017 and to 7,616 in 2018 — 14% over two years.
The reversal in committals for fine defaulting followed the introduced of the Fines Act (Payment and Recovery Act) 2014, but the full force of the legal changes did not take place until after the introduction, in January 2016, of provisions enabling payment of fines by installment.
Committals for fine defaulting had jumped from 2,250 in 2008, to 7,514 in 2011, reaching a peak of 9,883 in 2015. It fell to 8,439 in 2016, before collapsing to 2,261 in 2017 and to 455 last year.
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.”
She said the IPRT is “seriously concerned” at rapidly increasing prisoner numbers and the consequent impact on safety and rehabilitation.
“Numbers in prison custody averaged 4,026 last week, with up to six closed prisons meeting or exceeding safe custody limits established by the Inspector of Prisons,” she said.
Eoin Carroll, of the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice, welcomed the “positive impact” of the fines legislation, including on overall committals to prisons.
But 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”.
IPS data also shows the number of females in custody has increased, from 108 in 2017 to 153 in 2018, rising further to 169 by the end of last January — an overall jump of 56%.
It shows that female committals, excluding fines, were up 59% between 2017 and 2018.
Mr Carroll said a detailed analysis is needed as to what is happening in relation to female offenders.
He added: “The continual increase in the daily prison population, particularly the increase in women, is a worrying trend.”
He said release programmes like community return and community support need to be expanded.