Prison populations and sentencing reform

In the news yesterday – the prison population had passed the 4000 mark for the first time the history of the State. In fact it has since dropped back down below that dramatic figure but remains above the bed capacity level of 3,947. The Irish Penal Reform Trust‘s press release on this news valuably highlights the figures charting the steady rise in the prison population:

To place this level of imprisonment in context, the Irish prison population was just 750 in 1970; over 1,200 in 1980; 2,100 in 1990; 2,948 in 2000. The immediate consequence of this increase is to exacerbate an already critical overcrowding situation.

These figures need to be seen in the light of the report on Mountjoy Prison by Judge Michael Reilly, the inspector of prisons. His report was brought forward because of concerns about the dangers created by cronic overcrowding, not least of those being the fact that lives were being put at risk.

Overcrowding in Irish prisons has been described as cronic and acute for many years now, yet little signioficant action has been taken. And prison expansion is not the answer.

The short term answer is clearly put in the IPRT Directors Blog:

The Prison Service must set clear safe custody limits in each of the prisons and ensure that dangerous overcrowding levels are not allowed to develop. In the short term, numbers can be reduced by careful and structured use of temporary release.

But longer term, the issue is about sentencing. Indeed, Fine Gael yesterday called for “a radical overhaul of the State’s sentencing system”:

“I am calling on Minister Ahern to radically overhaul his approach to incarceration and to focus on community service for minor offences. With each prison place now costing almost €100,000 annually, the Minister must review the benefit of handing down thousands of minor sentences annually.”

According to Fine Gael the govenment needs to consider alternatives to custody, particularly in the case of non-violent offences on the basis that community service “is less expensive for the taxpayer and allows offenders to put something back into the community”.

It is good to see that in addition to proposing sentencing reform, Fine Gael have also now recognised that prison does not work:

“It is clear that prison in Ireland is enormously expensive and has little deterrent or rehabilitative value. Its effectiveness is further undermined by the use of early release as a means of facilitating the committal of ever more prisoners. Ireland has a revolving door prison system that sees almost 50 per cent of prisoners back inside within four years of their release. This is not sustainable…”

Ultimnately any discussion on the state of Ireland’s prison system must be done within the overall context of sentencing and criminalisation. The prison population has been rising for many reasons, not least of which is an iuncrease in a refusal of bail, an increase in lengths of sentence and increased levels of prosecution.