The number of people being sentenced to prison – in the main for relatively short sentences – needs to be “urgently reduced” before overcrowding levels become “unsustainable”, penal reformers have said.
The judiciary's over-reliance on imprisonment also meant the plans of the Irish Prison Service to reform the system will be put in jeopardy, the group said.
The Irish Penal Reform Trust was responding to the publication of the 2018 IPS annual report. It showed that while there was a 13% decrease in the total number of prison committals, that when fine committals were excluded, the number rose from 7,026 to 7,616.
Because committals for non-payment of court fines do not impact on the daily prison population (as they are often released on the day of committal), the average prison population rose by 6% in 2018, from 3,680 to 3,893.
The Irish Examiner has previously recorded the dramatic reduction in fine committals to prison.
The IPS report reveals a dramatic rise (18%) in the number of committals for terms under 12 months, from 2,639 to 3,104.
The biggest increase in this committal group was of sentences of less than three months, up 34%.
Commenting, the IPRT said the IPS report showed an “over-reliance on prison sentences within the judicial system” resulting in an overcrowded prison system.
IPRT Director Fíona Ní Chinnéide said prison policy has greatly improved in recent years and much has been achieved under the IPS 2016-2018 strategic plan.
“However, prisoner numbers urgently have to be reduced to allow the Irish Prison Service to continue to successfully implement its internal reforms. If the courts continue to commit high rates of men and women to prison, overcrowding will become unsustainable, outcomes for offenders will disimprove and the objectives in our penal policy will not be met.”
She welcomed the significant reduction in fine defaulters (down 79.8%) but expressed concern that committals under sentence (excluding fines committals) increased by 15.4%.
Ms Ní Chinnéide said: “What the figures from the annual report of the Irish Prison Service tell us is this: the numbers being committed under sentence of less than 12 months, and in particular less than three months, comprise the biggest increase in prisoner numbers. Amid a very sharp drop in fines committals, the question must be asked: why have we seen a substantial rise in overall prison numbers through 2018, and in particular across short sentences?
Last year, 74% of all committals under sentence were for sentences of 12 months or less. This is putting pressure on an already overstretched system and results in situations like last month, when there were 1,364 instances of people sleeping on the floor across the prison estate.
She said the proliferation of short sentences was highest among women: “In 2018, the average number of women in prison increased by 14.6%, and over a third of women in prison are serving sentences under 12 months. And while overcrowding in the prison system is becoming an issue, it is already persistent in the female prison system.”