New laws diverting fine defaulters from jail have driven a 40% drop in the number of committals to prison.
The number of committals fell from 15,099 in 2016 to 9,287 in 2017, attributed to a 73% reduction in imprisonment for non-payment of court fines (from 8,439 to 2,261).
Excluding fines, sentenced committals have remained essentially stable — and the daily average number of prisoners in custody stood at 3,680 in 2017, compared to 3,718 in 2016.
Prison reform groups have said that inmate numbers have gone up in the first six months of 2018, now standing at almost 4,000, and have called on the minister for justice and the Irish Prison Service to address the rise.
The reformers have also raised concerns about the level of overcrowding in many prisons and the increased number of inmates on protection.
A person can be committed to prison more than once in a year, so in terms of people being jailed, the number of prisoners has dropped from 14,182 in 2015, to 12,579 in 2016 and to 7,484 in 2017.
Launching the annual reports for both the Prison Service and the Probation Service, Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan welcomed the 40% drop in the committals and said he was “very pleased” to report a 73% reduction in fine committals.
The practice of jailing people who failed to pay fines — imposed by courts as a sanction for a criminal conviction — created an administrative and staffing crisis for the prison system.
Numbers rose from 2,500 in 2008, to 7,500 in 2011 and to 9,000 in 2014, peaking at almost 9,900 in 2015, accounting for 60% of all committals in that year.
The system came into disrepute as the vast majority of fine defaulters were brought to prisons and processed only to be released within hours or the following day because of space shortages.
Committals fell to 8,400 in 2016 after the introduction of non-custodial options, including 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.
Eoin Carroll, deputy director of the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice, said that despite the “dramatic drop” in committals the average daily population remained the same, contrary to commitments to reduce numbers.
Deirdre Malone, executive director of the Irish Penal Reform Trust, said there was a “disconnect” between stated department policy and the reality of crowded prisons, with the situation worsening this year.
Mr Donnellan said there was a slight increase in the daily average number of female offenders, from 140 in 2016 to 144 in 2017.
Mr Carroll said the Dochas Centre for Women and Limerick Women’s Prison have been “chronically overcrowded” for ten years and Ms Malone said Dochas was now 130% over capacity.
Mr Donnellan said the IPS was about to go to contract for a 10-bed “step down unit” for female offenders being released, saying they had particular social and housing needs.
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