Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 25 May 2016

Justice system is in a fine mess

Editor's Viewpoint

Published 25/04/2013

Most people reading our report today will be astonished to learn that 21,000 jail sentences were handed down in Northern Ireland in the last five years for non-payment of fines.

Among those were 50 pensioners, including a 78-year-old man imprisoned for a week for the non-payment of a £155 fine.

Most people imagine that our jails are full of serious offenders such as terrorists, killers or drug dealers, while the reality is that many inmates are there for what would be regarded as a minor offence. Of course fines should be paid and anyone who refuses should face some punishment. But it does not even make economic sense to put them behind bars. It is estimated that it costs £3,000 to keep someone in prison for four days.

So millions of pounds from an ever-tightening public purse is being spent on jailing people for offences which include non-payment of television licence fees or fines for littering, begging or, absurdly, having a dirty windscreen. This may be following the letter of the law, but can it really be called justice?

Even the Stormont Justice Minister, David Ford, realises that the current system needs reform.

He wants the non-payment of TV licence fees made a civil rather than criminal matter, but this has been refused by the government minister responsible at Westminster. Mr Ford makes sense with his suggestion that an alternative to jail sentences should be devised. Surely it is not the mark of a civilised society to send a 78-year-old pensioner to jail for not paying a fine? He is right to argue that more efforts should be made to help people avoid defaulting or finding new methods of punishment such as community orders.

A scheme piloting such an approach has shown encouraging signs of success. It strikes us as a more humane approach while still administering punishment and also a more cost effective use of public money and Mr Ford should press ahead with his plans for reform of the existing system.

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