'Early release' for some prisoners
Convicted burglars, car thieves and shoplifters could get out of jail early under new Government plans.
A new conditional early release scheme, due to start next month, may see criminals deemed to be at low risk of re-offending released after serving half their sentence.
Life sentence prisoners and those jailed for terrorism, sexual or hate related offences will not qualify.
The Department of Justice said: "The Conditional Early Release (CER) scheme is based on the premise that we will only facilitate the conditional early release of those offenders whose release will not damage public confidence in the criminal justice system and who are assessed as presenting a low likelihood of re-offending and whose early release will aid their rehabilitation and resettlement back into the community."
Victims will also be informed and those prisoners released early will be subject to a licence curfew and recall if they breach their licence conditions.
DUP MLA Edwin Poots, who sits on the Justice scrutiny committee at Stormont, said politicians had some reservations about the proposals.
He said: "I know that the prisons are bulging at the seems, but that is no reason to reduce the deterrent against crime.
"We need to be a country that is very determined that crime does not pay. If you are seen to be soft on crime then that encourages more crime."
The justice committee is to write to the Department of Justice outlining members' concerns.
Mr Poots added: "We have a responsibility to the victims of crime to ensure that justice is served and when a perpetrator of a crime is convicted that they serve their sentence."
It is estimated that around 50 prisoners would be eligible for the early release scheme each year.
Offenders who qualify would have to prove they had been drug free for 12 weeks; engage positively with prison work programmes; accept responsibility for their behaviour and demonstrate they can be trusted.
A satisfactory release plan including approved accommodation would also have to be completed.
SDLP MLA Patsy McGlone, who also sits on the justice committee, said: "This will have to be handled very carefully because o ne person's low risk crime is another person's high risk victim.
"I would also ask, is this a result of the cuts and the pressures on the prisons as a result of the cuts? Is this about creating additional space for some of those referred to as more high risk prisoners?
Meanwhile, changes will also be made to the early release of prisoners on compassionate grounds.
The DoJ said: "Such releases will only be considered in exceptional circumstances, ie where a prisoner is nearing death or where his or her health has deteriorated to such an extent that he or she requires a level of round-the-clock intensive care that is impossible to deliver in a prison environment."
Meanwhile, Lord Maurice Morrow claimed the new scheme was a way of expeditiously "emptying the jails".
He said: "Given we already have an automatic 50% remission on custodial sentences in Northern Ireland, this early release is simply another way of emptying the jails as quickly as possible without due consideration for victims or the requirement for justice.
"What also is to be said for the rehabilitation of offenders which we are continually told is incumbent on the justice system, and is early release a form of this or a soft option to juggle prison statistics?"