Tom O’Malley, a barrister and senior lecturer at University College Galway, said while there were almost 7,400 committals to prison in 2010 for sentences of less than three months, there were only 38 in custody on a given day.
“This suggests there is an enormous through-put of very short-term prisoners within the system and it poses the question as to whether there is any point in imposing short sentences if they are not going to be served to any meaningful extent,” he said.
Mr O’Malley said most of these sentences end up not being served and were, therefore, of “no use”.
Speaking at the 2012 Annual National Prosecutors’ Conference, Mr O’Malley said the 7,400 committals accounted for 28% of all committals in 2010. This was part of an “enormous increase” in the prison population, which jumped from 3,321 in 2007 to 4,389 in 2011.
He said this phenomenon had “few parallels in recent history”, not just in Ireland. But he said that out of a total population of 4.5m it was still a “potentially manageable” figure.
Mr O’Malley said that in the present economic circumstances, there was unlikely to be any significant expansion in prison spaces.
He said he welcomed laws requiring judges to consider community service as an alternative to prison, but stressed the need to “monitor compliance” of such service.
He said that at the other end of the sentencing spectrum, the Government should consider establishing a formal parole system, whereby people would be eligible for release once they have served a proportion of their sentence. He said they would be assessed based on the risk they posed to the public. He claimed Ireland seemed to be “allergic” to considering such a system.
Senior counsel Patrick Treacy said that a recent Supreme Court decision — declaring a certain arrest warrant to be unconstitutional — had gone off like a “bombshell” and that “dust hadn’t even begun to settle yet”.
He said this decision was going to be a significant problem over the next 24 months for cases that had not yet concluded.