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Fine defaulters and Irish Prison Policy

November 10, 2009 2 comments

In the Irish Times yesterday, Conor Lally informs us that the number of people jailed for not paying fines is likely to double this year, bringing the numbers of committals for non payment of fines up to one quarter of all committals to prison. 2,520 people were committed to jail for non payment of a fine in 2008.

This should not come as a surprise as economic difficulties worsen. What is difficult to understand is why policy makers have been slow to impose what would be a very easy partial solution to our overcrowding problems. Those who cannot pay fines should not end up in prison. Those who are not deemed enough of a risk or whose offending is not serious enough to warrant a prison sentence should not be taking up much needed space in our jails.

Recent research by Professor Ian O’Donnell, Professor Eric Baumer and Nicola Hughes of University College Dublin has also found that fine defaulters who are sent to prison are the most likely of all offenders to return to prison. 85% of those sent to prison for fine default end up back in jail within 4 years. This is a startling statistic and, as the authors note, removing fine defaulters from the prison system altogether would significantly reduce recidivism rates and the numbers of released prisoners would fall, reducing the burden on the communities to which ex-prisoners return. This is quite apart from the alleviation of the administrative burden on the Irish Prison Service which comes with fine defaulters sent to prison, many of whom remain for a short period of time.

The Fines Bill 2009 will allow fines to be paid by instalments. Judges will also be able to impose Community Service Orders instead of fines. This Bill should be enacted without delay.The Oireachtas should also take this opportunity to re-examine our system of punishment and the use of Community Service Orders more generally.

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