Michael Donnellan said the amount of time currently spent processing fine defaulters — numbering almost 9,000 in 2014 — could now go on other important areas.
The Irish Prison Service director general said prison should “only be used as a last resort” and that an instalment system for paying fines was consistent with that principle.
The system — operated by An Post on behalf of the Courts Service — comes almost six years after laws allowing for instalment payments were first introduced.
But legal problems, including powers to enable courts to impose deductions from wages, and technical issues, have repeatedly delayed the project.
Since the Fines Act 2010 was published the number of people committed to prison for defaulting on court-ordered fines spiralled, from 6,683 in 2010 to 8,965 in 2014.
Back in 2008 the number of fine defaulters imprisoned stood at just 2,520. The number of fine committals in 2014 represented more than half of all the people sent to prison in that year.
Prison authorities, including governors, have long complained at the huge use of resources processing fine defaulters — the vast majority of whom are released within hours or overnight.
“The Irish Prison Service welcomes the commencement of the Fines Act,” said Mr Donnellan.
“This piece of legislation will dramatically reduce the number of committals to prison. Fines committals for 2014 were almost 9,000 out of a total of 16,155 committals.”
He added: “The amount of time spent in processing fine defaulters can now be diverted to other services and programmes for prisoners.
“I have always believed prison should only be used as a last resort and this act ensures that this principle will apply in relation to the non-payment of fines.”
The contract was awarded to An Post following competitive tender and the cost of the contract is understood to be €500,000 for a three-year period.
Commencing the law, Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald said it was an “historic day” and that it was an appropriate response to problems caused by a “refusal or failure” to pay fines.
She was confident the number imprisoned for not paying fines in the future would be “greatly reduced”.
Under the act:
- Fines will be set at a level that takes into account the person’s finances;
- All fines over €100 can be paid by instalments;
- If the person fails, the judge can consider a wage attachment order, a recovery order or a community service order.
Ms Fitzgerald said imprisonment will only apply where these orders are not appropriate or where a community service order was not complied with.
The Courts Service said “staged payments, or installments, will help a person to meet their obligations and be facilitated in post offices nationwide from Friday”.
The Irish Penal Reform Trust’s Deirdre Malone said: “This is a victory for common sense: imprisoning people for failure to pay court ordered fines is not only socially damaging, it creates an illogical and additional burden on an already strained prison system.”