Progress in the
Penal System (PIPS)

1: Towards a progressive penal policy (2019)

Standard 1:

Penal policy is continually monitored, implemented, evaluated and evolving.


Penal policy in Ireland should reflect the guiding principles and values of penal reform.[67] At the same time, policy should maintain a level of flexibility to adapt to emerging issues, the needs of the prison population and the changing penal environment. Therefore, implementation, regular review and evaluation of penal policy are imperative.

Current context:

In recent years there has been broad consensus on the goals of penal policy in Ireland, as reflected in a number of domestic reports[68] [69], including the Department of Justice and Equality Strategic Review of Penal Policy (2014) by the Penal Policy Review Group (PPRG)[70]. These goals include: making Ireland a safer society through reducing reoffending; promoting crime reduction through rehabilitation; and reducing reliance on prison as a sanction, while encouraging the use of community sanctions.

The PPRG made 43 policy recommendations in its strategic review. In order to monitor progress on these recommendations, an Implementation Oversight Group (IOG) was established. The Seventh Report of the IOG to the Minister for Justice and Equality was published in February 2019 [71]. In the letter accompanying the report, the Chairperson outlined some of the progress achieved since 2014[72]. They noted:

The Penal Policy Review Group, following the Thornton Hall Review Group, represented a step-change in thinking about penal policy in Ireland. Its great strength was its ability to achieve consensus amongst a wide variety of participants, from Department of Justice and Equality officials to NGOs. Now, almost five years after the report was first published, the Implementation and Oversight Group continues its work reporting on the progress of its implementation. A lot has changed in that period; the Community Return scheme has shown success, the interdepartmental and interagency group on a Safer and Fairer Ireland has been established, your Department now has a Data and Research Strategy, and the Victims’ Directive has now been transposed into Irish law.[73]

The Chairperson also expressed concerns, however, about the lack of progress on embedding the foundations of progressive penal policy:

Furthermore, some of the statutory underpinnings which the Penal Policy Review Group thought important to its blueprint for a renewed penal policy remain absent. Recommendation 32, which recommended that the principle that imprisonment be a measure of last resort be enshrined in statute has not been implemented. Legislation on community sanctions (Recommendation 9) is also still awaited. Core elements of the Penal Policy Review Group’s report concerning support for the policymaking process have also not been progressed, such as the establishment of a Consultative Council.[74]

The Group is examining its current operation in order to look at “possible ways forward to ensure the promise of the Penal Policy Review Group’s vision is fulfilled”.[75]

Indicators for Standard:

Indicators for Standard 1

Indicator S1.1: Establishment of a Consultative Council (new)

A chairperson formally accepted appointment to the Consultative Council on 3 November 2015 and invitations to members were issued [76]. However, since then no initial meeting has taken place.[77]

Indicator S1.2: Number of Penal Policy Review Group (PPRG) recommendations that have been fully implemented

According to the assessment by the IOG, only 5.4% of the 55 areas have been described as fully implemented in its Seventh Report.[78]

Indicator S1.3: Number of recommendations of Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality (2013) Report on Penal Reform that have been implemented

None of these five recommendations has been fully implemented.

Report on Penal Reform (2013) Progress Analysis
1. Reduce the prison population by one-third over 10 years. Daily average number of persons in custody:[79]
2013: 4,158
2014: 3,915
2015: 3,722
2016: 3,718
2017: 3,680
2018: 3,893
There was progress on reducing the average number of persons in custody 2013-2017. However, 2018 saw a 5.8% increase in the daily average number of persons in custody from 2017 figures.
2. Commute sentences of less than six months imposed for non-violent offences and replace with community service orders.[80] Committals under sentence of six months or less (excl. fines committals):[81]
2013: 1,964
2014: 1,631
2015: 1,622
2016: 1,518
2017: 1,755
2018: 2,109

There was a decrease in the number of persons committed for sentences of less than six months 2013–2016. However, numbers began to rise again in 2017. 2018 had the highest number of committals under sentence of six months or less over the six-year period.

The biggest increase in the numbers committed under sentence in 2018 was for those serving sentences of less than three months, which increased by 34.3%[82].

3. Increase remission from 25% to 33% for all sentences over one month and establish an enhanced remission scheme of up to half sentence. A review of enhanced remission has been completed by the Irish Prison Service (IPS).[83] Standard remission remains at 25% and enhanced remission at 33%.
4. Introduce a single piece of legislation that would form the basis of a structured release system. No single piece of legislation has been introduced. However, on 23 July 2019, the Parole Act 2019 was signed into law.[84] When the Parole Act 2019 is commenced, the Parole Board will have the power to make binding decisions on the release of eligible prisoners. This system applies to life- sentenced prisoners and those serving long sentences (8 years and over).
5. Address overcrowding and prison conditions with increased use of open prisons. As of 24 June 2019, six prisons were operating above the Office of the Inspector of Prisons’ (OiP) recommended bed capacity.[85]

There has been no increase in the use of open prisons in 2018–2019. Overcrowding has been a major feature of the closed prison estate in 2018–2019 (See Standard 7). The under-utilisation of open prison capacity[86] in the context of overcrowding has been raised.

On 1 July 2019, occupancy rates at Loughan House and Shelton Abbey were 80% and 85% (See Standard 6.).[87]

Indicator S1.4: Number of recommendations of the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality (2018) Report on Penal Reform and Sentencing[88] that have been implemented.

There were 29 recommendations made by the Joint Committee. The report covered a wide range of issues including: prison numbers, overcrowding, inspections, post-release supports, recidivism, parole and the rights of victims.

One welcome recommendation was for a review of the Criminal Justice (Spent Convictions and Certain Disclosures Act) 2016.[89] On 10 July 2019, an initial Committee debate examined how the current legislation could be improved.[90]

The Parole Act 2019 has been signed into law.[91] This will place the Parole Board on a statutory footing,[92] a recommendation also made by the Committee.

While the recommendations made by the Committee were in 2018 and thus, relatively new, there has been limited progress towards the implementation of the majority of its recommendations. Some of the recommendations are outlined opposite.

Recommendation Current Status 2019
Prison numbers should be capped in each institution with a clear strategy to reduce prison populations by half over a fixed amount of time There has been no capping of prison numbers, and prison numbers have increased.
The establishment of an independent complaints mechanism for prisoners Prisoners in 2019 still have no access to an independent complaints mechanism
Solitary confinement should be phased out There continues to be a high number of prisoners placed on restricted regimes; 67 people were held in solitary confinement in July 2019.[93]
Prisons should aim for an accommodation policy of one person, one cell and the necessary resources should be made available to realise this aspiration There has been no progress on achieving single-cell occupancy throughout the prison estate as recommended by the Committee. (See Standard 9 for more detail)

Indicator S1.5: Publication of relevant Data and Research to inform evidence-led criminal justice policy

The Department of Justice and Equality published its Data and Research Strategy 2018-2021 in 2018.[94] IPRT welcomes that the Department is commissioning research in the areas of recidivism and confidence in the criminal justice system.[95]

The Prison Psychology Service has placed increased emphasis on the importance of research and evaluation of new initiatives, with PhD studies focusing on the National Violence Reduction Unit and on engagement with life sentenced prisoners. A doctoral study on an early engagement initiative with 18-24 year olds in the prison system is also underway with University of Limerick, and a review of the Building Better Lives Programme for sexual violence in conjunction with University College Dublin.[96] These developments are promising in terms of supporting evidenced-based policy and practice.

Indicator S1.6: Adoption and Implementation of PIPS standards

There has been no formal adoption of PIPS standards by relevant bodies. However, PIPS standards have been welcomed by the Office of the Inspector of Prisons, the IPS and the Probation Service. The Office of the Inspector of Prisons has stated that the PIPS standards will be considered in the development of its inspection framework.[97]


A wide number of progressive penal policy recommendations have been made in Ireland in recent years. However, implementation of these recommendations has been slow and, in some cases have never been implemented.

In this respect, IPRT welcomed that a monitoring mechanism was introduced to track the implementation of the 43 recommendations made by the Penal Policy Review Group. However, despite this, challenges still present regarding both monitoring and implementation. By its seventh implementation report in 2019, the IOG assessed that only three of 55 areas (across the 43 recommendations) have been ‘fully implemented’. One of the ‘fully implemented’ areas relates to a decision to not proceed with open prisons for weekend sentencing.[98]

The other two areas described as ‘fully implemented’ relate to: improving the standard of conditions in Cork Prison;[99] and progress towards the tendering process of an open centre for women.[100] It could be viewed that the former was achieved through the opening of the new Cork Prison in 2016; however, throughout November 2018–May 2019 the prison experienced regular overcrowding, with a number of prisoners sleeping on mattresses.[101] Regarding the open centre, the assessment of ‘fully implemented’ was given on the basis of a decision being made to proceed with the facilities and a tender being issued, as opposed to such a facility being opened. (Subsequently, in 2019 the facility was opened - see Standard 32.1). How the IOG assesses performance on implementation of recommendations may need to be reviewed, to be fully reflective of the current situation.

Much work needs to be done to ensure that penal policy is not only agreed upon but that these recommendations are effectively monitored, implemented, evaluated and evolve.

The collation and publication of data and research is vital to driving evidence-informed policymaking. In this regard, IPRT welcomes the commitment by the Department of Justice and Equality to data and research evident in the publication of its strategy. As part of this ongoing process, the Department of Justice and Equality might consider consultations with key criminal justice stakeholders as part of the research-agenda-setting process, and consider the funding of longitudinal empirical research projects in order to inform penal policy-making in Ireland into the future.

Status of Standard 1: Mixed

Actions required:

Action 1.1: The Department of Justice and Equality should publish the terms of reference, including budget and powers of the Consultative Council. Following this, a date must be set for the Consultative Council initial meeting to advise on issues related to penal policy.
Action 1.2: The Department of Justice and Equality should consult with a range of criminal justice stakeholders as part of the agenda-setting process for its research programme and projects; it should also consider the commissioning of large-scale independent empirical research projects.


Irish Penal Reform Trust


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