New prisoner early release scheme isn't about saving money, insists David Ford
Hundreds of convicted criminals will be allowed to walk free from jail almost five months early under a new prisoner release scheme. Well-behaved prisoners who are not believed to be dangerous will be rewarded with the chance of having up to 135 days taken off their prison sentence.
The move has been met with fury by MPs and MLAs, who have accused Justice Minister David Ford of "short-changing" victims.
Mr Ford said the conditional early release scheme will aid rehabilitation and resettlement into the community.
He insisted the scheme is limited to prisoners "with an exemplary record in custody and who present a low risk of reoffending".
"I took the decision to commence this power on the grounds that conditional early release on licence can have a positive impact on a prisoner's rehabilitation by providing an opportunity for early resettlement back into the community," Mr Ford told the Assembly.
He added: "The realisation of savings was not the motivation behind the recent launch."
Sex offenders, terrorists and life sentence prisoners will be excluded. However, fraudsters, burglars, arsonists, car criminals and thieves are among those who could benefit from the new policy.
"People want to know that the sentence of imprisonment handed down by the courts is what will be served. They feel short-changed if they find out someone has been able to walk out of jail without serving that full sentence. We have to be very careful before we go down these paths," warned DUP MP Nigel Dodds.
Ukip MLA David McNarry accused the Justice Department of putting "money and resources ahead of justice".
"The prisons are overflowing and resources are stretched to breaking point, so the DoJ come up with this crazy idea to let a load of prisoners out for good behaviour. Well, they should have been on good behaviour before and they wouldn't have ended up in jail," he added.
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 justice committee chairman Alistair Ross said that the scheme will help low risk offenders get back into the workforce.
"I am supportive of a conditional early release scheme in the limited circumstances where the offender committed a low level crime and where the individual serves the remainder of their sentence in a constructive way, i.e. repaying their debt to society through community service," the DUP man said.
He added: "This would not be a widely used measure, and it would only apply to the lowest-risk offenders, but it is important it is only used in the appropriate circumstances."
The new early release scheme is not automatic and only those prisoners who are assessed as presenting a low likelihood of reoffending will be considered.
Anyone convicted of a sex offence or a terrorist-related offence will not be able to apply.
Other unsuitable offences include manslaughter, explosives, the use of a firearm or an offensive weapon, cruelty or a hate crime. Prisoners will also have to prove they have been drug free for 12 weeks, have approved accommodation to reside in and adhere to a curfew.