JUDGES will soon be forced to consider imposing community service as an alternative to prison sentences, under new Government plans.
The move is aimed at diverting some of the thousands of people sentenced for relatively minor offences from an overcrowded prison system into the community.
Penal reformers have warmly welcomed the move and said prisons should be kept for serious offenders.
Justice Minister Dermot Ahern said his plan – which would be contained in new legislation – would not tell judges what type of penalty to impose, but rather instruct them to consider the option of community service orders (CSOs).
Mr Ahern said the initial idea was to consider granting CSOs to people who would be otherwise sentenced to terms of up to three or possibly six months. He said this would amount to “reasonably substantial numbers”.
The Irish Prison Service 2009 annual report shows that 5,750 people received sentences of less than three months in 2009 – up 63% on the figure for 2008.
A further 1,905 people received sentences of between three and six months – up 27% from the figures in 2008.
“Some judges do use it [community service] as an alternative, some don’t,” said Mr Ahern. “As a result of this [legislation] they will have to consider it. This is insisting the judges consider the option. It is not tying the judges’ hands. Ultimately it is a matter for them.”
He said the option would be for people convicted of relatively minor crimes, including some road traffic offences.
Work carried out by offenders on CSOs include supervised painting, decorating and landscaping in the community. Court orders range from 40 to 240 hours.
“You see it used more extensively in the US and places,” said Mr Ahern. “I think we need to go down that road and put people in prison who should be in prison for serious crimes.”
He said the Probation Service had the capacity to take on more CSOs.
He said the department had discussions with the service in the run-up to the recent Fines Act and that they said they could accept a “three-fold increase, at least” in such orders.
The Probation Service 2009 annual report said it received 1,667 CSOs in that year.
Mr Ahern said the plan and the Fines Act would help ease the pressure on prison overcrowding.
Liam Herrick of the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) welcomed Mr Ahern’s announcement: “IPRT’s core message is that imprisonment should only be reserved for the most serious offences and for those offenders who present an ongoing risk to society. Therefore, we very much welcome today’s announcement by the minister about what we hope will be a presumption against imprisonment for minor offences.
“Although we need to know more about the details, this looks to be a very positive and progressive step, and is in line with international recognition that short sentences do more harm than good.”
Mr Ahern revealed details of the proposal at the official opening on a new block in Wheatfield Prison, Dublin. The block has 176 cells, with an initial capacity to house over 200 inmates.
One prison source said the cells were slightly bigger than normal and that this was to “future proof” for doubling up the cells.
The block is clean, bright and airy and the modern cells have in-cell sanitation, showers, sprinklers, television and call systems.
Prison governor John Sugrue said the block was “strictly drug free” and had six wheelchair-accessible cells.
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