Plans to release 1,200 prisoners over the next three years to tackle chronic overcrowding are putting the financial crisis and criminals before innocent people, a victims’ group has warned.
Advic, which represents families of murder victims, made the claim after Alan Shatter, the justice minister, announced the 2012-15 prison service reform plans.
Under the move, 400 inmates serving sentences of between one and eightyears will be freed every 12 months on temporary release, the equivalent of one almost every 20 hours.
Mr Shatter said the scheme would be confined to convicts who showed they were not a public risk, and was being set up to place increased emphasis on rehabilitation and to reduce the prison overcrowding crisis.
However, Joan Deane, a spokeswoman for Advic, said it would raise serious concerns for crime victims.
“Anyone convicted for a violent offence should not be considered for the community release programme.
“It is concerning this initiative seems to have been instigated simply to address overcrowding. Yet when it comes to very basic issues in terms of inadequacies within the justice system such as concurrent sentencing, the Government seems incapable of action despite numerous pleas from families.
“Ireland’s economic situation should not be allowed to dictate reform of the justice system... We fail to see how victims benefit from the programme.”
Mr Shatter earlier defended the policy by saying “our prisons are not intended to be mere warehouses for criminals and I want to see increased emphasis on rehabilitation”.
The Irish Prison Service said prisoner numbers increased 32% over the five years to the middle of 2011, when they peaked at 4,389.
However, it warned the number of staff working in the service actually decreased from 3,350 to 3,310 at the end of last year.
Officials described the early release scheme as an incentivised system freeingprisoners temporarily, and which would only be open to inmates who posed no threat to the community.
The idea would see them released in return for supervised community service.
Mr Shatter said great care would have to be taken to ensure there was nodanger to the wider public from the scheme.
“Providing we carefully select prisoners, it’s a win-win. It creates the possibility that some of the prisoners who are treated in this way will not re-offend.”
The temporary release scheme has been operating for about nine months as a pilot programme.
Mr Shatter said prisoners in the early stages of long sentences of up to eight years would not be considered. Inmates will be returned if they breach the terms of their release.
His plan was unveiled under the Irish Prison Service three-year reform plan, which also includes targets to ensure in-cell sanitation in all prisons by Aug 2015.
The report states that by the end of this year, almost 60% of cells in Mountjoy Prison will have in-cell sanitation and by 2014 the whole prison will have been radically upgraded.
Plans are also under way to redevelop prisons in Cork and Limerick.
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