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Further decreases predicted after lowest number of jailings in seven years

The number of people being jailed is at its lowest in seven years.

The Irish Prison Service said there were just over 15,000 committals to jail last year involving 12,579 offenders, a drop of more than 10% on the numbers from 2015 and the lowest since 2009.

Some 8,439 people were jailed for not paying a court ordered fine, a 15% fall on the previous year's figures.

Tanaiste and Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald said there had been even greater reductions in the number of people being sentenced to prison over unpaid fines with the number of committals halved in the first three months of this year.

"We must continue to ensure that violent offenders and other serious offenders serve appropriate prison sentences while at the same time switching away from prison sentences and towards less costly non-custodial options for non-violent and less serious offenders," she said.

"It is clear that the Fines Act which came into effect in 2016 is having an impact and further decreases are expected this year with provisional figures for the first quarter of 2017 showing decreases of up to 50% on the same period in 2016."

On average there were 3,718 prisoners in custody on any day last year, including 140 women.

Th e Irish Prison Service annual report revealed it costs on average about 69,000 euro to jail a prisoner for a year.

Fiona Ni Chinneide, acting executive director of the Irish Penal Reform Trust, said t he fall in prison committals is very positive.

She said: "(It) marks a shift away from Ireland's chronic over-reliance on prison as a response to failures in social policy.

"The clear statement by the Tanaiste that prison should be a sanction of last resort is strongly welcomed."

However, the trust criticised the lack of published prison reports for almost three years.

"(It) means that we don't know enough about the realities on the ground in Irish prisons," Ms Ni Chinneide said.

"In July 2017, Ireland will be quizzed by the UN Committee against Torture on how it protects against potential human-rights abuses behind prison walls.

"Now is the time to strengthen and better-resource key systems of prisons oversight, including prison inspections, monitoring and independent complaints mechanisms."

The Irish Prison Service also confirmed that 441 prisoners were on the run.

The vast majority of these inmates - classed as "unlawfully at large" - had been granted temporary release and were coming towards the end of their sentences, a spokesman said.

Most of them failed to return after getting release on compassionate grounds or to attend programmes, courses, rehab or training to support them when they have completed their sentences.

There were 12 incidents of prisoners absconding from Shelton Abbey open prison in Co Wicklow last year, with two still at large, and two incidents of inmates leaving Loughan House in Co Cavan, both of whom returned.

A spokesman for the Irish Prison Service said: "We will vigorously pursue any person who absconds from custody.

"They will be followed, they will be sought and their return to custody will be sought no matter how long it takes. There is a lot of work being done trying to find people who are unlawfully at large, with An Garda Siochana, to get them back into custody."

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