IPRT - Irish Penal Reform Trust

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Are we 10 steps closer to better and safer communities?

15th February 2016

IPRT logo_croppedIn Feb 2011, IPRT put together ten priorities for creating better and safer communities, proposals which we believed should be included in a new programme for government.

So, where are we 5 years on?

1. Prevention and Early Intervention

In 2011, we said:

"The most effective strategy in tackling crime is to target resources on those areas of social policy that are proven to be most sensitive to pathways of criminal behaviour. In particular, current investment in tackling drug and alcohol misuse and educational disadvantage, and in supporting primary healthcare (physical and mental) and child protection services, must be maintained."

In 2016, we (still) say:

Crime and social exclusion are inextricably linked, and failures in social policy directly contribute to offending and people in prison. Investment in disadvantaged communities, with particular emphasis on proven prevention and early intervention strategies, represents the best and most effective way to reduce crime.

There have been positive developments since 2011, including strong commitments enshrined in the 2014 framework Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures, but these must be implemented in full, and adequately resourced. Cuts to drugs treatment and other community services have also had negative impact: funding to evidence-informed treatment and services which work must be restored.

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2. Reduce Prisoner Numbers

In 2011, we said:

"Our prison population has doubled since 1997 with little or no impact on rates of crime in society, and it continues to increase by up to 13% every year. This is unsustainable in light of chronic prison overcrowding and rising prison costs. Government commitment to arrest this increase and to identify means to reduce our prison population is critical."

In 2016, we say:

There has been tremendous progress since 2011 towards addressing Ireland's chronically overcrowded prison system. Numbers in prison custody, which rocketed from 2007 and peaked at 4,600 in 2011, are around 3,700 in 2016. The prison population has been reduced safely through proactive initiatives and innovations, including the Community Return Programme, and measures introduced by government to reduce the numbers of people given short custodial sentences for less serious offences.

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3. Alternatives to Prison for Less Serious Offences

In 2011, we said:

"The first step towards reducing our prison population is to end the over-use of imprisonment for non-violent, less serious offences through the development and extension of alternatives to imprisonment. The full implementation of the Fines Act [2010], the enactment of the Community Service Amendment Bill [2011], and the resourcing of these schemes must be a priority. The continued resourcing of the Drugs Court and the Cloverhill Mental Health Prison Inreach and Court Liaison Service are critical in diverting offenders to appropriate services."

In 2016, we say:

The Community Service Amendment Act 2011 was enacted in October 2011, and (when fines are excluded) there has been a marked reduction in short sentences handed down by the Courts in recent years. This is positive. However, the numbers of community services orders have also fallen, and there is inconsistency in practice around the country. Additionally, the high rates of women committed to prison for non-violent offences persists. 

There were just under 9,000 committals for non-payment of court-ordered fines in 2014. The Fines Act 2014 was commenced in early 2016, which is welcome. We will be monitoring its operation to ensure that it meets its purpose of ending the damaging and wasteful practice of imprisonment for fines default.

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4. Review of Mandatory Sentencing

In 2011, we said:

"A major factor in our increasing prison population is the large number of relatively low-level drug offenders serving long sentences. Our drugs strategy has placed heavy emphasis on mandatory and presumptive sentencing, which is proving ineffective in targeting organised crime. There is an urgent need for a review of mandatory sentencing laws in the context of an overall review of drugs policy."

In 2016 we say:

There have been a number of definitive findings - by the Law Reform Commission, and also the Strategic Review of Penal Policy - that mandatory and presumptive sentencing does not achieve its aims, that existing presumptive sentencing laws around drugs and firearms should be repealed, and that mandatory sentencing schemes should not be extended. IPRT welcomed these findings. To that end, proposals by the outgoing government to introduce mandatory consecutive sentencing for burglary convictions are disappointing, and are grounded in reactive rather evidence-based reasoning. Similar commitments to the introduction of new mandatory sentencing schemes have also been made in the 2016 election manifestos of Fianna Fáil and Renua Ireland. This is disappointing.

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5. Humane Prison Conditions

In 2011, we said:

"Conditions in our older prisons are in clear violation of basic human rights standards, exposing Ireland to legal challenge at domestic and European level. The priorities for any revised prison building programme must be:

  • to provide humane and safe conditions for all prisoners.
  • to address the sanitation and overcrowding issues at Cork, Limerick and Mountjoy prisons by fixed dates.
  • to prioritise the development of smaller local prisons and open and low-security options wherever possible; this will enhance the economic efficiency of the system and allow the development of more effective and constructive regimes."

In 2016, we say:

There have been very positive and (literally) concrete action to address unfit and inhumane prison conditions since 2011, including renovations of Mountjoy Prison to eliminate slopping out; the opening of a new Cork Prison in February 2016; and tendering for renovations at Limerick Prison. The reduction of prisoner numbers has also had positive impact on conditions. Although slopping out persists in Portlaoise Prison, and building has yet to commence in Limerick Prison, there has been significant progress in the past 5 years: an overall reduction in the numbers slopping out from over 1,000 men in advance of the last general election, to around 100 today. This is an example of true commitment by the outgoing government to meeting Ireland's human rights obligations.

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6. Accountability

In 2011, we said:

"Transparency and accountability are central to any area of public life where human rights are at stake. The successful operation of the Prisons Inspection system must be complemented by an independent complaints system. This can be established either through the establishment of a prison ombudsman, or through amending or extending the remit of existing bodies. The establishment of a specific mechanism to investigate deaths in prison is also necessary."

In 2016, we say:

In 2012, the remit of the Inspector of Prisons was extended to include investigations into deaths occurring in prison custody and shortly after release from prison, with the reports made public. This has been of crucial importance to overall prison accountability. The Irish Prison Service also introduced a new internal complaints system, with an element of independent oversight for the most serious complaints. This is also positive. Nevertheless, in 2016 prisoners in Ireland still do not have access to a fully independent complaints mechanism, and the urgent need for a Prisoner Ombudsman, or equivalent, remains.

See:

7. End Imprisonment of Children in Ireland

In 2011, we said:

"The current Government has failed to deliver on its commitment to end the detention of children at St. Patrick’s Institution, which continues in violation of international human rights law. This must be addressed urgently by the construction of a child-centred detention facility for this group by a fixed date."

In 2016, we say:

Ending the imprisonment of children in Ireland was a commitment included in the Programme for Government 2011-2016. Since 2012, 16-year-old boys have not been detained in the adult prison system (with some rare exceptions), and new facilities have been built at the children detention school campus at Oberstown, Co. Dublin to accommodate newly remanded 17-year-old boys. In 2013, all 17-year-boys detained under sentence were transferred to Wheatfield Place of Detention. However, a small number of boys continue to be detained on remand in St Patrick's Instn. Overall, there has been strong progress, but staffing and other issues at Oberstown now need to be solved to finally end the practice of imprisoning children in an adult prison environment in Ireland.

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8. Review of Detention of Women

In 2011, we said:

"The increasing rate of imprisonment of women is a serious concern, not least because of the negative impact on families and communities. The progressive regime at the Dóchas Centre is being undermined by chronic overcrowding and conditions at Limerick Women’s Prison remain unacceptable. A strategy to develop appropriate alternatives to prison and an open prison response to women’s offending must be put in place."

In 2016, we say:

In 2014, the Irish Prison Service and the Probation Service launched a joint strategy on women offenders, which acknowledged that "women’s offending is multi-faceted and complex", and only "in a minority of cases prison is necessary." In 2014, Ireland's two female prisons were the most crowded across the prison system, but in 2015 and 2016 the two prisons have operated nearer capacity. This is progress, but it is slight. A lot more needs to to be done in terms of gender-proofed alternatives to prison, open prison facilities for females serving long-sentences, and provision of community-based 'one-stop-shop' centres.

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9. Reintegration and Rehabilitation

In 2011, we said:

"A number of key practical measures will achieve a reduction in re-offending and successful resettlement:

  • The passing of the Spent Convictions Bill should be a legislative priority.
  • Integrated Sentence Management (ISM) should be extended to all prisons.
  • Pre-release support for all prisoners in securing housing.
  • Continuity of mental-health care and drug treatment in the community on release."

In 2016, we say:

The Criminal Justice (Spent Convictions and Certain Disclosures) Bill 2012 finally passed through both houses of the Oireachtas in February 2016; and an 'administrative filter' was introduced for Garda Vetting in March 2014. While welcoming these developments and acknowledging that many people will benefit from the moves, IPRT remains disappointed at the limited reach of the legislation as passed. It is crucial that people who have demonstrated that they have moved on from their offending pasts are supported in overcoming barriers to education, employment, insurance, etc. 

ISM has now been extended to all prisons but must be properly resourced if it is to meet its goal of delivering prisoner-centred rehabilitation.

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10. Making our Communities Safer

In 2011, we said:

"Building on the White Paper on Crime consultation process, a comprehensive National Crime Strategy must be put in place, which prioritises crime prevention in building safer communities. This will provide a platform for greater cooperation between all state agencies responsible for crime prevention."

In 2016, we say:

Although the White Paper process has not yet been completed, the cross-agency Strategic Review on Penal Policy Report, published Sept 2014, takes an evidence-informed approach to how the penal system can and should play its part in supporting safer communities, and reducing reoffending. It marks a significant achievement. Full implementation of its recommendations is the next step.

In short, much progress has been achieved in key areas under the current government - but much remains to be done.

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