The Irish Penal Reform Trust has drawn attention, by way of a press release, to certain legislative issues which are now in limbo given the dissolution of the 30th Dáil and in need of urgent attention on the establishment of the 31st Dáil. In particular, the IPRT has highlighted that while the Fines Act 2010 was signed into law by President Mary McAleese on 2 June 2010 a number of its most important sections have not been formally commenced. Chief among those is section 15 of the Fines Act 2010 which allows for persons owing court-ordered fines to pay them by instalment over a period of 1 year (or 2 years in certain circumstances). While section 14 of the Act, which insists that the courts take into account the individual’s personal financial circumstances when determining the amount of the relevant fine, if any, to be imposed, has been commenced, the IPRT claims that the failure to ensure full implementation of the Act is contributing to “soaring numbers” of persons continuing to be imprisoned for failure to pay fines.
The failure to commence the relevant sections is apparently due to the current inability of the Courts Service computer systems to facilitate the payment of fines by instalment. This is 8 months after the legislation was promulgated by the President and 11 months after it was first passed by Dáil Éireann. Draft statistics from the Irish Prison Service (provided by Brendan Smith, holding the Justice and Law Reform portfolio, on 1 February 2011) show that 6,681 people were imprisoned in 2010 for the non-payment of court-ordered fines. This compares with 4,806 in 2009, 2,520 in 2008 and 1,335 in 2007.
The IPRT press release notes that while most fine defaulters are released after only a short time in prison
this redundant exercise is extremely costly and wasteful in terms of Courts, Gardaí and prison resources. Moreover, the futility of this practice is proven by the fact that 85% of those sentenced to imprisonment for fine default return to prison within 4 years, putting further future burden on a prison system already in crisis.
Speaking on the matter IPRT Executive Director Liam Herrick said
At a time of scarce resources, the continuing damaging and wasteful practice of imprisonment for fines should be a cause of national embarrassment. This rising rate of imprisonment is proof that our system of fines is not functioning; and while the enactment of legislation to address this is welcome, the failure to follow-up at the administrative level is costing significant amounts on an ongoing basis. As well as avoidable costs to prisons, courts and Gardaí, more importantly individuals are being committed to our overcrowded and unsafe prisons in cases where judges have already determined that prisons sentences are not appropriate.
Along with the issue of commencing the Fines Act 2010 in full, the IPRT also urges all parties to commit to passing the Criminal Justice (Community Service)(Amendment) Bill 2011 at the earliest opportunity following the 25 February general election. This Bill was published by the Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern on 12 January 2011 and proposes that judges will be required to consider community service for offences which would normally receive a custodial sentence of 6 months or less. Not including the financial value of any work carried out in the community by way of such community service, the Department of Justice and Law Reform projected that savings of between €14m and €17m could be made by using this alternative to prison.
Besides the Criminal Justice (Community Service)(Amendment) Bill 2011 a number of other Bills have fallen by the wayside now that a general election has been called and it will be up to the 31st Dáil to decide which, if any, of those is revisited in the future. These Bills include:
- to amend the National Asset Management Agency Act 2009 to make provision for the National Asset Management Agency to acquire certain bank assets expeditiously; to make consequential amendments to that Act; and to provide for matters connected therewith.
- to provide for the creation of an offence of female genital mutilation, and other offences relating to female genital mutilation, for the better protection of girls and women; to provide for amendments to other enactments; and to provide for related matters.
- to facilitate the more effective investigation of white collar crime and to reduce associated delays (based on feedback from gardaí on difficulties encountered in current enquiries into bank fraud and financial irregularities).