Almost 9,000 people, the equivalent of one every hour, were jailed last year for failing to pay fines, despite a Dáil call last April for a blanket ban on the practice.
Coalition backbencher Fergus O’Dowd made the call during a Dáil debate on prison overcrowding, which also heard Independent TD Mick Wallace insist no woman should be jailed for any crime, and admit he was given community service for an unspecified offence.
Speaking during a wide-ranging discussion yesterday, Fine Gael’s Mr O’Dowd said a report by the Dáil justice committee, chaired by party colleague David Stanton, had highlighted grim prison service flaws.
Noting the overcrowding crisis which is continuing to hamper jail standards, he said despite popular opinion many of those suffering are people who are no danger to society and have been unfairly placed in prisons.
Figures obtained by the Government backbencher show that in the past 12 months, 8,965 “commitals to prison were made for people who did not pay fines, the equivalent of the population of Dungarvan”.
Mr O’Dowd said despite a Dáil call for no one facing unpaid fines to be jailed last April, the practice has continued, with 55 people jailed on February 18 alone — an issue, he said, shows the system is “giving two fingers” to politicians.
“Prison is there to punish people who have committed serious crime and to protect the victims of crime and the public.
“But at the same time, a significant number of people in prison should not be there. Some 8,965 committals to prison were made last year for people who did not pay fines,” he said.
Mr O’Dowd and others said the issue is contributing to an overcrowding crisis in Irish prisons, which is damaging living standards for these people and other longer-term inhabitants, with specific concerns raised over Cork Prison.
The same debate also heard controversial recommendations from Mr Wallace that one way to resolve the issue is to ensure no woman is jailed “for any offence”.
The colourful Wexford representative claimed this approach, coupled with banning jail-time for people who will not or are unable to pay a fine, could help solve the overcrowding problem.
He said community service is a far better option and admitted he has had “the pleasure” of being subjected to such a punishment in the past, but declined to tell the Dáil the exact details involved “as I would have to kill them if I did”.
He also did not respond to an Irish Examiner request for comment last night.
“How mad is the idea of sending women to prison? I do not think there should be a women’s prison and no woman should ever be sent to prison,” he said.
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