Belfast Telegraph

Weekends-only prison proposed

Many criminals could be imprisoned on weekends only, under new plans to overhaul Ireland's overcrowded prisons.

Proposals drawn up for the Government also call for judges to be forced to give written explanations for sending someone to jail.

The recommendations have been welcomed by Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald, who said they would help shape the future of sentencing.

"I am determined that serious offenders and serial offenders must continue to be imprisoned," she said.

"Society expects and demands nothing less. But while prisons must remain part of the answer, prison must not be the only answer."

A group of civil servants, judges, top gardai, lawyers and prison chiefs were ordered to draw up a report on how to revamp the sentencing system.

The so-called Strategic Review of Penal Policy visited prisons and spoke with inmates, staff as well as victims before coming to its findings.

It has warned Ms Fitzgerald that too many less serious offenders are being put behind bars, when they could be better dealt with using cautions, community service schemes or in rehabilitation programmes.

More appropriate alternatives to custody would cut the likelihood of reoffending for many criminals, make the country a safer place to live and ease the burden on already overcrowded prisons, it says.

The 128-page report has called for more focus on dealing with the underlying reasons for people turning to crime and reintegrating them back into society rather than simply punishing them.

One key recommendation is that where a custodial sentence is deemed necessary, that it is for the weekend only, allowing the offender to maintain work, education and family ties.

It is proposed the offenders be detained in open prisons and let out from Monday to Friday in certain circumstances.

Furthermore, it calls for judges to explain themselves in writing before sending someone to prison.

This should be a legal requirement, which would help victims, offenders, lawyers and the public to compare sentences for similar offences, the report says.

The group also calls for the Garda powers to issue adult cautions to be extended to more offences, rather than bringing people before the courts for relatively minor misbehaviour.

The system is currently used for offences such as public disorder, theft and being drunk and disorderly.

Ms Fitzgerald welcomed demands for more non-custodial sentence options and greater use of community service or other sanctions such as unpaid work, psychological treatments and behavioural therapy for some crimes.

"Prison is not the only solution when it comes to those convicted of lesser, non violent offences," she said.

"Research proves supervised community sanctions can help in reducing reoffending, thereby reducing crime."

The report demands urgent action to deal with overcrowding and accommodation standards in Limerick and Portlaoise prisons.

It also called for an investigation into the increasing number of women being put into custody, despite a drop in female convictions and a dip in the number of men being jailed.

Women's prisons are now the most overcrowded prisons in the State, it notes.

There is evidence of higher than normal mental health problems among women offenders with higher levels of addiction and homelessness, it warns.

The study also found that criminal sanctions imposed on women can have a detrimental effect on the lives of their children, and calls for measures to deal with their particular needs.

The report says Ireland needs to break with the idea that prison is the only real form of punishment, and it should only be used as a "last resort".

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