Judges will be forced to consider community service for minor offences instead of jail terms under new laws, it was revealed today.
Justice Minister Dermot Ahern said people were still being put behind bars for petty crime yet there was scope for trebling the number of people ordered to work to make amends.
Mr Ahern said 7,500 people were sent to jail for less than six months last year.
The minister said extending the scheme would save the state millions of euro each year and help ease pressure on prison populations.
“Communities throughout the country will benefit from the unpaid work carried out by those serving community service orders,” Mr Ahern said.
“There is an under-utilisation of the community service scheme in this country. I am determined that those offenders who would be appropriate for community service are considered for such.”
The minister said the new legislation would be ready “very quickly” and people convicted of road traffic offences were most likely to benefit.
According to the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) one third of sentencing committals, which also includes people held on remand and immigration detention, were for road traffic offences.
Some 3,601 people were jailed in 2009 for a range of crimes from no car tax to drunk-driving.
Mr Ahern said it is currently up to judges to decide whether to give a community service order but the courts will have to consider it for people facing jail terms of six months.
But he stressed the Government was not interfering with the independence of the judiciary.
The number of people sent to prison for less than three months jumped 63% in a year, from 3,526 in 2008 to 5,750 in 2009, according to the Irish Prison Service.
Mr Ahern said that if 10% of the 7,500 cases were given community service the state would save €17m. He also accepted it was a way to free up space in the country’s jails.
The IPRT said it welcomed the minister’s move.