Belfast Telegraph

David Ford's early release gamble

Editor's Viewpoint

The early release of prisoners has a special resonance in Northern Ireland. It was a controversial part of the Good Friday Agreement and the public showed great generosity of spirit in agreeing to letting paramilitary inmates out early as a necessary precondition to the establishment of the peace process.

While the early release scheme proposed by Justice Minister David Ford and due to begin next month will only apply to prisoners convicted of relatively minor offences, it will still cause some furrowed brows and not a little unease among the general public.

Mr Ford is at pains to point out that those eligible will have to have shown exemplary behaviour while inside and could be recalled to jail if they breach their licence conditions.

And there are some defensible reasons for the move. He argues that it will aid rehabilitation and resettlement back into the community for those deemed as presenting a low likelihood of reoffending. Certainly, jail is not a good environment for many of those incarcerated and who would wish to go straight upon release.

Yet there is bound to be a feeling that financial reasons are also an unstated factor in his decision. The Justice Department has been faced with swingeing cuts to its budget and the average annual cost of keeping a prisoner in jail here is £77,000, almost double the cost in England and Wales.

From that perspective it would seem, too, that early release of low risk inmates - burglars, car thieves and shoplifters are among those eligible - is an enticing option.

On the scale of offenders these would be at the lower end, yet their victims may well feel short-changed. The public already feels that many offenders are treated too leniently by the justice system and that while victims may have to live with the trauma of the crimes for a considerable period, the perpetrators serve their debt to society relatively quickly.

It has to be admitted that rehabilitation is a core part of the justice system, but so too is imprisonment. It serves as a deterrent to others, as well as punishment for the offenders. These twin aims cannot get out of balance without affecting public confidence in justice. This is a scheme which will have to be handled sensitively and the released prisoners monitored closely.

If it does not meet the desired criteria of helping to rehabilitate and resettle offenders, then Mr Ford will face serious questions.

Belfast Telegraph

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