Election 2011 could prove to be a key moment of opportunity to achieve important commitments to a programme of penal reform. To make sure these issues get on the agenda of the main parties and independent candidates, we need you to raise these issues on the doorsteps, shopping centres, train stations - wherever candidates are canvassing. We suggest some possible questions below.
IPRT will shortly be publishing a short analysis of the parties’ manifestos from the penal reform angle, so check back here soon - in the meantime, make your voice and your vote count for penal reform!
Here are four key questions to ask your TD’s – please report back on any commitments made by candidates, so that we can hold them to account later! Send to Jane at firstname.lastname@example.org
1. What will you do to ensure that slopping out in Irish prisons is brought to an end during the next Dáil?
For almost two decades, Ireland has received international condemnation for its failure to address this serious human rights issue; it is a national disgrace.
- 1,003 men were slopping out in Irish prisons – approx. 28% of prisoners – on 17th Dec 2010
- Overcrowding means that prisoners who are slopping out are frequently sharing cells with other prisoners
- It is highly likely that there will be legal action taken by prisoners against the State in the future; similar action has cost Scotland millions.
2. What is your position on Thornton Hall?
IPRT believes a revised prison building programme should be based on 3 core principles:
- Humane conditions as a priority – Cork, Mountjoy and Limerick (female and male) in urgent need of refurbishment
- No expansion in overall numbers – any new cells should replace old cells
- Small local prisons should be preferred over large prisons; more open prisons are necessary for dealing with less serious offenders.
- Over €42m has already been spent on this ‘white elephant’ project, mostly on the land purchase
- Super-prisons are proven internationally to be difficult to manage
- The location of Thornton Hall will decrease opportunities for the successful integration of prisoners back into families and communities
- IPRT believes Thornton Hall as currently planned will only serve to increase the prison population, it will not address prison overcrowding.
- The allocated capital expenditure for buildings and equipment in the prison service for 2011 is €33.4m. However, it is clear that the development of Thornton Hall, even on a phased basis, is not likely to proceed in any meaningful way in the near future.
3. Are you committed to sentencing reform?
- A review of mandatory sentencing legislation is needed. Specifically, IPRT believes that drugs legislation is leading to large numbers of low-level figures receiving long sentences, while senior figures are escaping these sanctions.
- We continue to commit extremely high numbers to prison for less serious offences; the principle of imprisonment as a last resort should be applied to all non-violent and less serious offenders:
- the Fines Act must be fully commenced with urgency, towards ending the imprisonment of fine defaulters
- the Community Service Order Bill, which would require judges to consider community service for sentences of 6 months or less, should be enacted immediately.
- The proportion of our prison population serving long sentences for drug crime as a result of mandatory and presumptive sentencing laws has increased significantly in recent years.
- The laws were introduced to target major drug dealers, but there is growing evidence that a large number of those convicted are low-level figures in the drug trade who may be holding or transporting drugs on behalf of others; many of those convicted are first time offenders.
- A drugs strategy that is centred on mandatory sentencing means directing resources to prisons which could otherwise be spent on policing or drug treatment.
- Research shows that conventional police drug enforcement can reduce crimes against persons by about 70% more than mandatory minimum sentencing. However, investing the same resources in drug treatment should reduce serious crimes (against both property and persons) around fifteen times as much as would imprisonment.
- In 2010, there were nearly 7,000 committals to prison for non-payment of fines.
- 2009 also saw 7,655 (70% of committals) sent to prison for sentences of less than 6 months; eliminating these short and counter-productive prison sentence would create significant savings for the Prison Service and the Garda.
4. Are you committed to the Spent Convictions Bill? Will you make it a priority?
Ireland is the only European country which does not provide for any system of expungement of spent convictions (so-called ‘second chance legislation’). This means that even minor convictions can remain a permanent barrier to employment:
- Employment is proven to be one of the biggest factors in desistance from crime and reoffending.
- The proposed Spent Convictions Bill, published by the outgoing Government, received cross-party support.
- The legislation is ready for re-introduction to the Oireachtas, following considerable work by the Dept of Justice and Law Reform officials.
- We need to ensure that this is a political priority for a new Government and that a revised Bill is enacted in the first session of the new Oireachtas.