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13 given get out of jail card under new early release plan

By Deborah McAleese

Published 24/07/2015

Justice Minister David Ford
Justice Minister David Ford

Thirteen convicted criminals have been freed from prison up to four months early since the launch of a new prisoner release scheme last month.

The Department of Justice refused to reveal details of the offenders' crimes or the jail terms imposed by the courts.

However, Justice Minister David Ford insisted that the offenders were "low risk".

He said they were also subject to a licence and curfew and would be recalled if they breached their licence conditions.

Hundreds of convicted criminals are expected to benefit from the new conditional early release scheme introduced by Mr Ford on June 1.

Since then 13 inmates have been released under the scheme and seven applications have been refused. Well-behaved prisoners who are not believed to be dangerous can now be rewarded with the chance of having up to 135 days taken off their sentence.

Mr Ford told the Belfast Telegraph that the scheme "will only facilitate the release of certain categories of offenders who have been convicted of lesser offences, who have been assessed as presenting a low risk of reoffending and whose early release will aid their rehabilitation and resettlement back into the community".

Sex offenders, terrorists and life sentence prisoners will be excluded from the scheme. However, fraudsters, burglars, arsonists, car criminals and thieves are among those who could benefit from the new policy.

Mr Ford said that since becoming Justice Minister in 2010, reforming the Prison Service has been a priority for him.

"Prison is not just about carrying out the will of the courts, but ensuring we have arrangements in place to help with rehabilitation and so reduce the risk of reoffending on release," he said.

"The conditional early release scheme is the most recent in a number of reforms to modernise the prison service and improve services delivered.

"It has been introduced so prisoners convicted of lesser offences, who are assessed as having a low likelihood of reoffending, can commence their resettlement back into the community."

Mr Ford said the scheme had been welcomed by the cross-party justice committee and insisted it was not about cutting costs. According to the DoJ, the wider prisons reform programme has helped make savings across the board and reduce the cost per prisoner from £77,831 in 2009/10 to £58,387 in 2014/15.

However, some sceptics have accused the DoJ of "short-changing" victims. Ukip MLA David McNarry said it was putting "money and resources ahead of justice".

And TUV leader Jim Allister warned sentencing "should be left to the courts".

"While there is pressure on the prisons in Northern Ireland it is vital that we don't leave the public - particularly victims - feeling that the system is soft on crime. We've already had far too much of that in Northern Ireland," he said.

But DUP justice committee chairman Alistair Ross said that the scheme will help low risk offenders get back into work.

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