'Soft justice' blasted as 23 criminals walk free in early release scheme
More than 20 convicted criminals have walked free from jail early over the past five months under a new prisoner release scheme.
The Belfast Telegraph has learned that since its launch in June, 23 prisoners jailed for crimes that included robbery, fraud, public order and drugs offences have been released from behind bars up to four months early for good behaviour.
Justice Minister David Ford has insisted that early release inmates were "low risk" and subject to licence and a curfew.
The new conditional early release (CER) scheme is one of a number of recent reforms to modernise the Prison Service.
Mr Ford has defended the scheme, saying that early release for low risk offenders, who were assessed as having a low likelihood of reoffending, will aid rehabilitation and resettlement back into the community.
However, Ukip's David McNarry slammed the initiative, describing it as another example of "soft justice".
"Yet again the victims of crime aren't being given a second thought. Why can't these criminals serve the full sentence handed down to them by the courts? I'd like to know if their victims were asked if they would be happy about them getting out early," said Mr McNarry.
He added: "We are getting far too soft. Prison is no longer the deterrent it should be. I also don't buy into this nonsense that those being released early are unlikely to reoffend. To me, this is all about trying to save money."
Chairman of Stormont's justice committee Alastair Ross said he believed there was a role for conditional early release schemes to encourage prisoners to engage in constructive rehabilitation work while in prison, but should only be used in limited circumstances.
He added: "The public quite rightly wish to see those who are imprisoned serve out their full sentence, so my own preference would be for the small number of prisoners released under such a scheme to serve out the remainder of their sentence in some form of community work in order to repay their debt to society, albeit in a more constructive way."
According to information obtained from the Prison Service under Freedom of Information, the inmates recently released under the scheme had been serving jail sentences of between one and five years for offences against the person, robbery, fraud, public order and drugs.
The scheme is not automatic and only those prisoners who are assessed as presenting a low likelihood of reoffending will be considered for release up to 135 days early.
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.