Progress in the
Penal System (PIPS)

Thematic Area 1: Reducing the use of imprisonment (2020)

The core guiding principle of penal reform is that prison must be a sanction of last resort. This is because periods of imprisonment can have a profoundly damaging impact on people through the loss of family contact, housing, employment and disruption in access to services. In terms of public safety, as an evidence review of recidivism published by the Department of Justice in 2020 demonstrates, short terms of imprisonment are less effective than community sanctions.[113] Furthermore, short terms of imprisonment are much more expensive to administer than community sanctions.[114]

Given the significant social and economic costs of imprisonment, IPRT has long campaigned for prison to be used sparingly and reserved for serious offending. However, successive PIPS reports identified the slow implementation of policy recommendations on decarceration and increased use of alternatives to custody.

In 2020, the picture has been very different. In response to the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in Ireland, the prison population was reduced over a 4-week period (from 4,235 on 11 March 2020 to 3,807 on 10 April 2020).[115] Numbers were then maintained below 3,800 until end of October 2020. This welcome and swift reduction in the prison population demonstrates what can be achieved, and contrasts starkly with a continued year-on-year trend of increasing prisoner numbers since 2017. (See Standard 2, Imprisonment as a last resort.)

The trend of sending increasing numbers of people to prison for short sentences continues to be a significant stain on Ireland’s progressive penal policy framework. In 2019, 76% of all committals under sentence were for 12 months or less.[116] This stark figure shows that prison is too often the default response. This is despite empirical evidence that demonstrates that the risk of recidivism increases when an individual is sentenced to imprisonment.[117] It is a particularly acute issue for the female prison population – up to one third of women in prison under sentence are serving sentences of less than 12 months,[118] with successive short sentences described as serving ‘a life sentence by instalment.

A parallel trend of equal concern is the increasing numbers of committals on remand. (See Standard 10, Pre-trial detention as an exceptional measure). In previous editions of PIPS, we monitored the separation of remand from sentenced prisoners, which is required under international human rights treaties. However, the continued increase in numbers held in pre-trial detention means this requirement cannot be met. There has been a 21% increase in the daily average number of people held on remand in Ireland since 2017.[119] This increase mirrors global prison trends.[120] However, this is not a trend that Ireland should continue to follow.

A number of opportunities arising in 2020 and 2021 can support the vision of progressive penal policy and, in particular, the use of prison as a last resort. (See Standard 1, Progressive Penal Policy.) The Sentencing Guidelines and Information Committee established on 30 June 2020 under the Judicial Council Act 2019 should consider including prison as a last resort’ as a sentencing principle.[121]

The constitutional basis for this principle was considered by the Law Reform Commission in its 2020 Report on Suspended Sentences.[122]

Prison as a last resort should be a shared common goal across all criminal justice stakeholders, with community sanctions promoted as a direct alternative to imprisonment. This objective should be reflected in the first Criminal Justice Sectoral Strategy led by the Department of Justice.[123] It would instil focus and identify the role and responsibilities that various criminal justice stakeholders hold in achieving this objective.

Political developments during 2020 support reforms in this area. Important commitments in the 2020 Programme for Government[124] include a commitment to progress the work of the Consultative Council to advise on penal policy issues. This was a recommendation made by the Penal Policy Review Group in 2014,[125] and should now be acted upon as a priority.[126] It is important that the Consultative Council is established to cast a critical eye on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on wider penal policy, in order to avoid short-term thinking and maintain focus on long- term systemic reform.

Above all, the Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated that positive change can happen at pace when there is political will and impetus. IPRT believes that this is something that all stakeholders should reflect upon and work towards. The pandemic shows the importance of reducing prisoner numbers, ensuring prisons are below capacity to protect those within them. Now is the time that key criminal justice stakeholders can look at the learnings in order to avert future crises and use the Covid-19 pandemic as an opportunity to move forward in the implementation of progressive penal policy.


Irish Penal Reform Trust


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