Home > Community service: an alternative to imprisonment in Ireland.

Guiney, Ciara (2018) Community service: an alternative to imprisonment in Ireland. Drugnet Ireland, Issue 64, Winter 2018, pp. 27-28.

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In October 2017, the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) in association with the Irish Criminal Bar Association held a seminar and launched a PhD research project ‘Examining the comparative use, experience, and outcomes of community service orders as alternatives to short prison sentences in Ireland’ by Dr Kate O’Hara.1



Community service orders (CSOs) first emerged in Ireland following the enactment of the Criminal Justice (Community Service) Act 1983 in December 1984.2 According to this legislation, a CSO could only be enforced after imprisonment had been considered. With the aim of overcoming issues of underutilisation, reducing short-term prison (STP) stays, and helping offenders and the wider society, the Act was amended in 2011 to allow and encourage courts to impose a CSO as an alternative to short-term sentences (<12 months) as long as certain criteria were met.3


Aims and objectives

The main objective of the O’Hara study was twofold: first, to examine how CSOs were utilised and, second, to compare views, experiences and recidivism rates between two groups: those that received CSOs (n=6784) and those that received STP sentences (n=5231).



The study used a mixed methodology approach. Data related to STPs (n=6784) and CSOs (n=5231) for the years 2011 and 2012 were provided by the Irish Prison Service and the Probation Service. This was subsequently linked to criminal history and rearrest data from An Garda Síochána. The analysis involved a comparative analysis (quantitative) and interviews (qualitative, n=21). Lastly, the frequency of rearrests was examined 12 and 24 months after leaving prison or beginning the CSO.



The results indicated that, although offenders in the STP group were older than those in the CSO group, the number of previous convictions for the STP and CSO groups was similar. The likelihood of obtaining a CSO was influenced by province, court location, and court type. More CSOs were issued in Ulster, while fewer were issued in Munster and Connacht. No association was shown between CSOs and Leinster. The analysis of courts by location indicated that more CSOs were issued from rural courts. Moreover, a higher number of offenders received a CSO when a court was located far from a prison. These results should be interpreted with caution however as many of the effect sizes were small.Sanctions for drug offences resulted in a higher number of CSOs than STP sentences. Although this outcome was significant, the effect size was low. The average CSO length for drug offences was 164 hours (SD=56.1), while the average alternative prison sentence was 6.7 months.


For individuals whose original offences were drug offences: 

  • At six months, rearrests were higher in the CSO group when compared to the STP group, 21% (n=121) and 17% (n=68), respectively.
  • At one year, rearrests were higher in the CSO group when compared to the STP group, 33% (n=194) and 30% (n=120), respectively.
  • At two years (2011 only), rearrests were lower in the CSO group when compared to the STP group, 50% (n=151) and 54% (n=116), respectively.


Only a small proportion of offenders whose original conviction was for drug offences were reconvicted for drug offences; 21% (n=25) received CSOs and 13% (n=18) received STPs. Subsequent convictions included violent offences, property offences, road traffic offences, public order offences and other offences. Information on other offence categories can be viewed in the thesis.1



O’Hara concluded that this was the first study of its kind to be carried out in an Irish jurisdiction. In order to implement and consider CSOs and other alternatives to imprisonment as acceptable, more research was needed along with changes to policy and practice.



Judge David Riordan, the Probation Service, Professor Mary Rogan, Mr David Perry BL, and the IPRT welcomed the findings of the study and acknowledged that it increased the knowledge and understanding of CSOs in Ireland. The Probation Service provided an outline of changes made thus far and examples of work carried out by offenders that have received CSOs to date and their plans for the future.


To coincide with the seminar, the IPRT published a discussion paper where they explore how the application of CSOs within the Irish criminal justice system can be improved.4 They identify a number of areas that need to be addressed to achieve this, such as evidence-informed policy, legislative reform, monitoring and review, promoting consistency, raising awareness, tailored community sanctions, addressing substance misuse, and further research.


Professor Rogan drew attention to the fact that the data in this study came from a variety of sources and of the importance of researchers having access to accurate and good quality data. She believes that this will provide a sustainable model to enable further exploration of the impact and usefulness of policies that are being implemented within the Irish justice system, while also allowing for changes and improvements to be captured. Collaborative work between the academic sector and practice and policy-makers was identified as the best route to achieving this.

1  O’Hara K (2016) Examining the comparative use, experience, and outcomes of community service orders as alternatives to short prison sentences in Ireland. Dublin: Dublin Institute of Technology. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/27991/

2  Criminal Justice (Community Service) Act 1983 at http://www.irishstatutebook.ie/eli/1983/act/23/enacted/en/print

3  Criminal Justice (Community Service) (Amendment) Act 2011 at http://www.irishstatutebook.ie/eli/2011/act/24/enacted/en/html

4  Irish Penal Reform Trust (2017) Community service in Ireland: a qualitative exploration of one alternative to short-term imprisonment. Dublin: Irish Penal Reform Trust. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/28310/

Item Type
Publication Type
Irish-related, Open Access, Article
Drug Type
Substances (not alcohol/tobacco)
Intervention Type
Harm reduction, Crime prevention
Issue Title
Issue 64, Winter 2018
February 2018
Page Range
pp. 27-28
Health Research Board
Issue 64, Winter 2018
Accession Number
HRB (Electronic Only)

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