IPRT welcomes the statement by Minister for Justice and Equality, Mrs Frances Fitzgerald TD, that she has obtained the agreement, in principle, of Government to proceed immediately with the implementation of some key recommendations arising from the Strategic Review of Penal Policy. These are:
- bringing forward legislative proposals to establish the Parole Board on an independent statutory basis;
- preparing proposals and options for Government on reform of sentencing policy including a review of the threshold at which presumptive minimum sentences in drugs and other offences apply;
- preparing proposals for Government on legislating for the review's recommendation that Courts set out in writing their reasons for imposing a custodial sentence;
- preparing proposals on the potential for increased use of earned remission; and
- pursuing options for an open prison for female offenders.
While there has been recent progress in reform of the penal system, there is still much to be achieved to ensure that Ireland is meeting its international human rights obligations, and that our penal policy is rational, evidence-based and makes social and economic sense. IPRT believes that progress on the above recommendations is a positive move in the direction of necessary reform.
IPRT has previously called for action on each of the points, presenting policy proposals grounded in evidence and research:
1. Establish the Parole Board on an independent statutory basis
IPRT has long called for an independent statutory Parole Board to be established. Among our recommendations under this heading are: removing the role of the Minister in decision-making on release of long-term prisoners; extending the remit of the Parole Board to include early release applications of those sentenced 5-8 years; setting time limits for when parole hearings must take place; and giving a right to legal representation before the Parole Board.
2. Reform of sentencing policy including a review of presumptive minimum sentences in drugs and other offences
IPRT believes that mandatory and presumptive sentences should be removed from the statute book in Ireland. Instead, alternatives to mandatory sentencing, as proposed by the Law Reform Commission, should be introduced to address the concerns relating to the consistency, transparency and predictability of sentencing practice.
IPRT has also called for existing exclusions of categories of prisoners (including those serving presumptive sentences of imprisonment for certain drug and firearm offences) from eligibility for temporary release to be removed.
3. Requirement for Courts to set out in writing their reasons for imposing a custodial sentence
Ireland systematically overuses imprisonment as punishment, particularly for less serious offences: 89% of sentences handed down in 2013 were for 12 months or less. IPRT’s view is that many prisoners who are sent to prison could safely - and more effectively - be dealt with using non-custodial means. To this end, IPRT has previously recommended that judges should be obliged to give written reasons behind a decision to imprison the convicted person.
4. Increased use of earned remission
A reformed system of remission offers the potential to play a vital role in the reintegration of the prisoner into society. Standard remission is a well-established part of the Irish prison system, but the one quarter remission rate in Ireland is low by international comparison. There has been some frustration with regard to the failure to activate the enhanced remission system, whereby prisoners may qualify for up to one third remission under the Prison Rules 2007 if he/she engages with authorised structured activities.
IPRT has previously called for remission to be increased to 50% for sentences under 5 years; and 33% for sentences over 5 years but with an enhanced 50% for those who demonstrate engagement with services as part of incentivised regimes.
5. Open prison for female offenders
IPRT's position is that prison should only ever be used as a last resort for women who have been convicted of an offence. In dealing with women offenders, a strong emphasis should be placed non-custodial alternatives to prison, such as community service orders, gender-specific diversion programmes, and holistic support services in the community. Among IPRT's policy recommendations for the small number of cases where prison is necessary for women who have been convicted of an offence, is the need for the establishment of an open prison.
IPRT also welcomes the Minister's reaffirmation of her commitment to "reform in prison and penal policy," and the positive reflection on the operation of the Community Return programme, which has seen a compliance rate of almost 90%:
"Apart from delivering real savings in the form of saved prison bed spaces and reparation to the community, I believe one of the most worthwhile elements of the programme is the positive development in providing a structure and support which can help prisoners to successfully resettle in their communities."
The Minister's statement was made in response to a Dáil question posed by Niall Collins TD on Tuesday 18th November 2014.