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Irish Examiner: Petty criminals set to be kept out of prison

19th October 2010

Judges will soon be forced to consider imposing community service as an alternative to prison sentences under new Government plans, writes Cormac O'Keeffe in the Irish Examiner. The move is aimed at diverting some of the thousands of people sentenced for relatively minor offences from an overcrowded prison system into the community.

IPRT has warmly welcomed the announcement, and said prisons should be kept for serious offenders.

The article reports that Justice Minister Dermot Ahern said the proposed new legislation will not tell judges what type of penalty to impose, but rather instruct them to consider the option of community service orders (CSOs). It is planned that CSOs would be granted to people who would otherwise receive custodial sentences of up to three or possibly six months.

The Irish Prison Service Annual Report 2009 shows that 5,750 people received sentences of less than three months in 2009; 1,905 people received sentences of between three and six months – up 27% from the figures in 2008.

The article quotes Minister Ahern thus:

"Some judges do use it [community service] as an alternative, some don’t... As a result of this [legislation] they will have to consider it. This is insisting the judges consider the option. It is not tying the judges’ hands. Ultimately it is a matter for them."

Significantly, Mr Ahern is quoted as saying:

"You see [community service] used more extensively in the US and places," said Mr Ahern. "I think we need to go down that road and put people in prison who should be in prison for serious crimes."

Cormac O'Keeffe also talked to IPRT's Liam Herrick, who welcomed Mr Ahern’s announcement:

"IPRT’s core message is that imprisonment should only be reserved for the most serious offences and for those offenders who present an ongoing risk to society. Therefore, we very much welcome today’s announcement by the minister about what we hope will be a presumption against imprisonment for minor offences.

"Although we need to know more about the details, this looks to be a very positive and progressive step, and is in line with international recognition that short sentences do more harm than good."

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