THE parole system for prisoners may be extended to include those on shorter sentences in a bid to ease overcrowding in the prison system.
Announcing the initiative, Justice Minister Alan Shatter said prison numbers exceeded 5,000 for the first time in March 2010 and, last Wednesday, had reached 5,289.
He told the delegates attending the Prison Officers’ Association (POA) annual conference that 4,495 of those were in custody and 794 (15%) were on temporary release — almost one in six.
He said the number on temporary release was “simply unacceptable”.
Mr Shatter said he was anxious to deal with the overcrowding problem “creatively” and, as part of that, was looking at extending the parole system.
“I am looking at new ways to deal with the parole system,” he said. “At the moment prisoners who essentially serve sentences of seven years or more — I’m looking and my department is examining the possibility of implementing a pilot scheme which will facilitate prisoners serving lesser sentences.”
Mr Shatter said this would be on the condition they “undertake some level of community service”.
If they didn’t comply with this, they would return to prison, he said, adding that the scheme would only be considered for those prisoners who would be deemed appropriate for parole.
He told delegates the level of overcrowding in the system was impacting on services to prisoners.
Mr Shatter said he hoped the Community Service Order Bill would pass the Oireachtas by the summer and be operational soon afterwards.
The bill imposes an obligation on judges to first consider imposing a community service order on people who might otherwise face a sentence of up to 12 months.
The minister hoped that this measure would have “an impact on prisoner numbers”.
Mr Shatter said there were more than 600 prisoners in the system currently serving sentences of 12 months or less.
He said the Fines Act — which aimed to stop the imprisonment of people for non-payment of fines — had still not been implemented due to technical problems in the Courts Service.
It is hoped to progress the issue “as rapidly as possible” but the minister could not give a time frame.
He also said a review of the Thornton Hall project was examining both the feasibility and affordability of the project and alternatives if it did not go ahead.
The committee carrying out the review is due to report to the minister by July 1.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved