Belfast Telegraph

Monday 1 September 2014

Minister in community orders plea

Justice Minister Alan Shatter says 'more appropriately' issued sentences would help ease jail overcrowding

Justice Minister Alan Shatter has urged judges to hand down more community service orders rather than send people to jail.

Although he insisted he was not criticising the courts, Mr Shatter said it was quite clear that non-custodial punishments may be more suitable in a number of cases than a spell behind bars.

Nearly nine out of 10 imprisonments last year were for 12 months or less.

Mr Shatter said "more appropriately" issued sentences would help ease overcrowding in jails, cut costs for the taxpayer and force criminals to give something back to the community.

"Clearly there are individuals who commit criminal acts and it is appropriate that they serve sentences, even short sentences," he said. "But 88% of those sentenced to imprisonment last year served sentences of 12 months or less. I am anxious that the community service order scheme is utilised to a greater extent."

Speaking at the annual conference of the Prison Officers' Association (POA), Mr Shatter stressed that it was important judges acted independently and handed down sentences as they saw fit. "But quite clearly, there are a number of people who are given quite short sentences who may more appropriately be dealt with under the community service order scheme," he added.

Mr Shatter said laws brought in two years ago compelled judges to consider handing down community service orders rather than small sentences to prison of one year or less. "It is disappointing that it is not being greater utilised," he said of the scheme. "I hope it will be greater utilised in the future."

Mr Shatter has had a number of high-profile run-ins with judges since his appointment as Justice Minister. But he has denied interfering with the independence of the judiciary, most recently over the judges' pay controversy. Two years ago, he was also forced to fend off claims he was meddling in the Smithwick Tribunal.

The senior Fine Gael figure said sentencing was an important matter of public interest and he was merely commenting that he believed community service orders should be used more. "Our judiciary must exercise their independent discretion whence determining the nature of sentences to be imposed," he said. "But it is important that the community service order scheme is utilised to a greater extent than it is being utilised at present."

Mr Shatter added that if the legislation was not working correctly, he would consider amending it. As it stands, the Probation Service is able to take on more people in community service programmes, he said.

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