The president of the District Court, Judge Paul Kelly, has rejected allegations that judges are sending too many people to prison.
Judges only impose a custodial sentence as a measure of last resort, he said, adding that he often goes months without sending someone to prison.
Judge Kelly, who usually presides over the Children’s Court, was reacting to a new report from the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) which states there is an “over-reliance” on custodial sentences for people convicted of less serious crimes “despite its damaging social and economic impact on individuals, families, and communities”.
In particular, there is an over-reliance on custodial sentences for women who offend, it states.
Launching the report on Friday, Judge Kelly praised the work of the IPRT and said he is “personally a big fan” of non-custodial alternatives for offenders. However, he took issue with “some of the assumptions on which the report is premised.”
He said that despite what the report may imply, “I and all of my colleagues always operate on the basis that imprisonment is a last resort.”
When a district judge imposes a custodial sentence, it is only after all other options have been tried, he said. “It is extremely rare to impose a prison sentence on a person the first time they appear for sentence in the District Court,” the judge said.
He listed the alternatives which are typically imposed before a prison sentence is handed down: “Charitable donations, bindings to the peace, probation bonds and supervision, fines, community service, suspended sentences and restorative justice.
“You will generally find the person sentenced to jail has got most or all of those options in the past, often on many occasions, before the hammer finally drops and the prison door opens.”
Judge Kelly cited a case he dealt with involving a prolific shoplifter who “wrought havoc in a provincial town over several years”.
The woman often reoffended on her way home from court after receiving a non-custodial sentence, he said. On one occasion Judge Kelly told the woman she was in court more than he was.
He said after years of this, he felt he had “no other option but to impose a sentence, for no other reason than the shop owners needed a break from her offending”.
Prison has not deterred the woman’s offending, but neither did any of the other options, he said.
Judges have to consider the needs of the community as well as the offender, Judge Kelly told The Irish Times.
Molly Joyce, acting IPRT executive director, said in 2021, 79 per cent of all prison committals were for 12 months or less “which gives us strong indication that we do keep sending people on short sentences into prison”.
Ms Joyce said, despite promises from Government, non-custodial options to reduce the prison population have not been properly utilised.
“It’s disappointing to see a narrative now emerging around building more prisons when I think we haven’t actually given that a proper chance,” she said.
The IPRT report is critical of overcrowding in prisons, particularly women’s prisons which tend to predominantly accommodate offenders serving short sentences.
Former prisoner Paul Grace said overcrowding removes prisoners’ dignity and humanity. He recalled a cell in Mountjoy which they called “the caravan” as it had three sets of bunk beds as well as people sleeping on the floor.
“So you could have anything from six to 10 people sleeping in that cell with no toilet facilities,” said Mr Grace, who now works with young offenders through the Solas Project. This creates tension and hinders rehabilitation, he said.