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Is it time to rethink our penal system?

It costs in the region of €70,500 per year to house one prisoner in Ireland, according to figures contained in the Irish Prison Service Annual Report for 2010This figure has decreased by €6,000 from 2009 when per capita costs where in the region of €77,000.

The reduction in costs has been brought about by the more efficient operating of our prisons, but also mainly by an increase in bed capacity. Prisons are like aeroplanes – the more bums on seats you have, the cheaper your operating costs. However when you consider that on average a midcareer garda would earn in the region of €45,000, and adding on €30,000 for costs to the State for training, administration, etc., each prisoner on release equates with an extra garda on the streets, or an extra nurse in a hospital or an extra teacher in a school.

It makes sense not to punish an overburdened public with increased taxes or by reduced public services in order to fund the cost of housing someone found guilty of a crime. Instead a fundamental change to our penal system is needed, starting with a concentrated policy by the judiciary to implement the Criminal Justice (Community Service) (Amendment) Act, 2011 which imposes an obligation on judges who are considering the imposition of a prison sentence of less than one year to first consider the imposition of community service as an alternative to imprisonment.

Suitable long term prisoners could be allowed to seek early parole, and on release be again assigned to specific community service, thus again saving the state the costs of accommodating them.

I am not recommending any form of “get out of jail” free card for those found guilty of crimes, but a suitable form of service to the community which they have committed the crime against. Ireland has hundreds of unfinished housing estates abandoned by insolvent developers which will, if they are ever finished, have to be paid for out of the public purse.

There are flood defences to be built, streets to be cleaned, dereliction to be removed and community centres to be built. All these are works which could be carried out by those who are sentenced by the courts, as an alternative to sitting idle in a prison cell at a cost to the tax payer of €200 a day. The imposition of more community service orders, properly and strictly enforced and supervised, would lead to major cost savings and free up resources which could be diverted to improve public services, and would in my view be a more effectual method for the rehabilitation of prisoners.

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Written by Jasmine Woolley