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Political consensus on ‘decarceration strategy’ clears the way for real reform of Ireland’s penal system - IPRT

27th March 2013

[See also roundup of media responses here.]

MEDIA ADVISORY

The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) has today called on Government to adopt the ‘decarceration strategy’ recommended by the cross-party Sub-Committee on Penal Reform, which would see the prison population reduced by one-third over a ten-year period. This is one of five clear and achievable recommendations put forward in the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality Report on Penal Reform, published today (27th March 2013).

Responding to the Report, IPRT Executive Director Liam Herrick said:

“A major obstacle to reform in the past has been the politicisation of crime policy. It is very significant that we now have cross-party consensus on what needs to change in the wider penal system in order to make the system effective, efficient and to reduce reoffending after release.

“The Sub-Committee has methodically sifted through the evidence, looking at the entire penal process, from sentencing options to preparing for release, and arrived at a clear and coherent strategy for reforming a system that is currently not working, and has not been working for some time. Crucially, the key elements are echoed in the Irish Prison Service Strategic Plan 2012-2014 – so the agencies are on board too.

“However, there have been previous attempts to set such targets, dating back to the Whitaker Report of 1985, which were never implemented. It is crucial that the Government now commits to action on all of the recommendations included in the Sub-Committee's report.

“Current prison building plans in Cork and Limerick, alongside refurbishment being undertaken in Mountjoy, are welcome and long overdue. However, the addition of new blocks at Wheatfield and Midlands prisons have seen those prisons edge closer to becoming the 'super-prisons' that no one wants. It is vital that any new prison building to address poor prison conditions must be matched by a commitment to closing unsuitable prison accommodation and returning to single occupancy of cells across the prison estate.

“The consensus for change across all main agencies and parties means we now have a once in a lifetime opportunity for real and lasting reform.”

In July 2011, the Thornton Hall Project Review Group stated unequivocally that prison crowding could not be tackled through prison building alone; the Sub-Committee on Penal Reform was established on the basis of the findings of the Thornton Hall Review Group specifically to address the issues raised.

Of particular significance is the strong recommendation that the Government commit to reducing the prison population by one third over a 10-year period; the differential treatment of first time offenders and those serving a prison sentence for the first time; and the emphasis on incentivised release and reintegration supports, leading to reduced reoffending.

IPRT made a submission to the Sub-Committee on Penal Reform in November 2011 including specific recommendations around 'back door' strategies, including earned early release and a widening of remission rates and eligibility. Although some of the recommendations in the final Sub-Committee Report fall short of those proposed in the IPRT submission, the organisation strongly welcomes the report as offering a coherent plan for reform of the Irish penal system to reduce numbers in prison, reduce reoffending, leading to safer society.

For all media enquiries, or to arrange an interview with Liam Herrick, please contact Fíona on: 

T: + 353 1 874 1400           M: +353 87 181 2990        E: communications@iprt.ie      W:  www.iprt.ie

NOTES FOR EDITORS:

1. Prison figures:

  • There were 4,306 people in prison custody in Ireland on 7th March 2013.
  • The prison population passed 4,000 for the first time in October 2009; it has consistently remained above 4,250 since 2011, reaching 4,587 on 12th April 2011.
  • The current bed capacity of Midlands prison is 610; a new block adding 340 spaces is due to open, which will bring the total capacity to 950 – Ireland’s biggest prison yet.
  • The average occupancy at Wheatfield Prison is around 700 prisoners.
  • Although Mountjoy Prison was designed for 540, it has previously held up to 720 prisoners. Current refurbishment projects have seen the numbers reduced to under 600.

2. IPRT Position Paper: Reform of Remission, Temporary Release and Parole

Published 22 Oct 2012, this paper expanded on recommendations included in the submission made by IPRT to the Oireachtas Sub-Committee on Penal Reform in November 2011: http://www.iprt.ie/contents/2443 

Core recommendations included:

i) That remission should be increased to 50% for sentences under 5 years; and 33% for sentences over 5 years; with an enhanced 50% for those who demonstrate engagement with services as part of incentivised regimes.

ii) That a more transparent system of temporary release setting out clear criteria should be used for compassionate release, weekend release (maintaining family relationships) and day-to-day release for work.

iii) That the principles of ‘Earned Early Release’ of the recently introduced Community Return Scheme should be expanded to create incentives within the prison system for prisoners to engage constructively with services. Systems for deciding on early release should be open and transparent and prisoners should have a right to challenge refusals for release.

iv) That an independent statutory Parole Board should be established and take over decision-making on the release of life-sentenced and long-sentenced prisoners. The Minister for Justice should be removed from decision-making on release of long-term prisoners; and the remit of the Parole Board should be extended to include early release applications of those sentenced 5-8 years, among other recommendations.

v) That the Minister for Justice should consider making use of the right of pardon and the power to commute or remit punishment to bring the prison population within the safe custody limits recommended by the Inspector of Prisons.

3. Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) | www.iprt.ie

IPRT is Ireland's leading non-governmental organisation campaigning for the rights of everyone in prison and the progressive reform of Irish penal policy, with prison as a last resort.