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Column: Politicians have no place in deciding who gets freed from prison

Our early release system badly needs an overhaul, writes Liam Herrick of the Irish Penal Reform Trust.

Liam Herrick

HERE IS A bald fact: all prisoners in Ireland, with very rare exceptions, will be released at some time in the future. While the length of a sentence will be set by a judge, the equally important question of if and when a prisoner will be released early is still usually decided by the Minister for Justice.

While sentencing is hardly uncontroversial (see recent stories), there are checks and balances through the appeal system to protect the defendant and the public where necessary.  Early release, whether through remission, temporary release or parole is far less transparent or structured.

In our view, there are two main problems with the current system.  First, the lack of an open and transparent system of early release means that prisoners don’t know what they must do to qualify for release.  This means that instead of prisoners working constructively towards targets of rehabilitation, often there are no clear incentives for them to engage with services while in prison.  The second problem is that in order to address chronic overcrowding within the system, the Prison Service is forced to use temporary release in an ad hoc and reactive way, for which it is unsuited.

Open decision-making

In bringing forward proposals for reform of the law around the early release, we believe that more structured and open decision-making on the release of prisoners, based on incentivising rehabilitation and measuring risk of reoffending, can help reduce overcrowding while also enhancing public protection.

The most important element of our proposed new system will be removing the role of the Minister for Justice from decisions about when life-sentence or long-term prisoners (we are recommending all sentences over five years should transfer to the Parole Board) should be released.  There should no political element in the release process, perceived or real.  Decisions should be taken by an independent and expert Parole Board.  Proper due process rights should apply, including a right to a lawyer in parole hearings.

In relation to Temporary Release, which is release on license (ie the prisoner can be returned to prison for breaching conditions), we are recommending that there should be two separate forms: (i) short term temporary release for compassionate grounds or day release to attend work; and (ii) earned early release, whereby medium-length prisoners can work towards their release by addressing the factors behind their offending.

Community Service

One example of earned early release is the ‘Community Return Scheme‘ piloted in 2011, through which certain prisoners who are assessed as posing no threat to public safety can exchange a portion of their custodial sentence for a Community Service Order. We welcome this as a pragmatic response to prison-crowding, one which reduces costs to the taxpayer who further benefits from the work being done in the community.

We believe that it should not be necessary to use temporary release as a safety valve for overcrowded prisons. Soaring rates of prisoners out on temporary release is unsatisfactory for prisoners and the general public alike: it weakens the integrity of justice in the eyes of the public, and prisoners are often given little notice of their release, with little chance to set up key things like accommodation and continuation of any treatment begun while in prison.

Remission, whereby prisoners receive a 25 per cent reduction in their sentence for good behaviour, is a controversial part of the current system.  While there is much criticism of the automatic entitlement to reduced sentence in this area, remission is a common feature of most prison systems.  In fact, Irish remission rates are lower than in most comparable jurisdictions.  We are recommending that remission should be increased to 50 per cent for less serious offenders and 33 per cent for more serious offenders.  This would be a pragmatic step to relieve overcrowding and could immediately go a long way towards bringing the prison population (currently over 4,200) to within its official capacity of 3,700.

Right of pardon

Finally, as a response to the ongoing overcrowding crisis in Irish prisons, the Minister for Justice should consider making use of the right of pardon and the power to commute or remit punishment to bring the prison population within the safe custody limits recommended by the Inspector of Prisons.

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One practical proposal, given the impact of recession and austerity measures in Ireland alongside the ongoing delays in fully implementing the Fines Act 2010, is that fines (in whole or part) could be remitted and/or an amnesty introduced. Removing the thousands of fine defaulters who enter prison every year from the system, would reduce pressure on strained resources, and allow proper investment in services and regimes within prison – this, in turn, will better support the safe reintegration of prisoners back into society on their release. It is in everybody’s interest that this works.

Put simply, IPRT believes that the early release system in Ireland should be coherent, transparent and fair. We believe that the establishment of a statutory parole system, along with reform of the existing systems of remission and temporary release, will help to support a proper balance between the protection of the public and the rights of sentenced people to a fair and balanced system of early release.

Liam Herrick, Executive Director, Irish Penal Reform Trust. IPRT launched its Position Paper 9: Reform of Remission, Temporary Release, and Parole yesterday as part of a Prison Law Seminar. For more details, see iprt.ie

About the author:

Liam Herrick

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