Home > Report on penal reform and sentencing.

Guiney, Ciara (2018) Report on penal reform and sentencing. Drugnet Ireland, Issue 66, Summer 2018, pp. 6-8.

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Increased interest in penal reform and sentencing in Ireland has resulted in the publication of several reports.1,2,3,4 An updated report, which re-examined this subject, was published by the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality in May 2018.5 The report brings together existing evidence and the views of key stakeholder groups, such as the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT), Victims’ Rights Alliance, Probation Service, Irish Prison Service, Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice, Prison Officers’ Association, and Simon Communities of Ireland. The overall aim was to determine what the main issues were and to identify ‘specific actions’ to overcome them. The themes that emerged from the engagement with stakeholders resulted in several recommendations by the committee.


Prison numbers and conditions

Although daily prison populations in Ireland are average compared with our European counterparts, committal rates were viewed as high. Overcrowding was identified as an issue in some prison estates along with problems such as safety of offenders and staff, health and wellbeing. The committee recommended that prison numbers should be capped, and a Government strategy should be implemented to decrease the prison population by 50%. A ‘one size fits all’ was not considered suitable for a prison setting nor was the over-reliance on closed prisons (p. 53). The committee urged that new prisons should be more flexible and utilise state-of-the-art, community-based, semi-open facilities.


The increase in female prisoners was viewed as dramatic. It was suggested that a possible way to reduce the number of females in prison was to provide step-down units post-release. However, the committee recommended that a Housing First approach should be used instead. It was proposed that young people aged 18–24 years should be recognised as a distinct group that comes under the remit of the Irish Youth Justice Service and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. In addition, each youth detention centre should be paired with third-level and further education colleges. Finally, the committee called for an accommodation policy which should ensure that all prisoners are in single occupancy cells.


Complaints and inspections

The committee recommended that a mechanism for considering prisoner complaints should be set up as well as a complaints procedure. The group also called for legislation to provide for inspections in all detention places within the Irish justice system and for the immediate ratification of the optional protocol to the United Nations Convention against Torture.



The influence of family and children was highlighted as a driving force for behaviour change. The committee believed that these relationships should be promoted and maintained during incarceration and post-release. Establishing mother and baby units would further promote and support child wellbeing and family life.


Addiction and mental health

The evidence provided indicated that a large proportion of committals presented with addiction or substance abuse (70%) and mental health issues. Access to rehabilitation services is vital and prisoners need to be aware of what they can access. Currently, prisoners experience extensive delays in accessing services. The committee urged that it was imperative that sufficient resources were provided to help address prisoners’ mental health needs.


Although the committee welcomed violent and disruptive prisoner (VDP) units in the Midlands Prison, the establishment of VDP units across the prison estate was recommended. Moreover, prison staff require support regarding their wellbeing as well as appropriate compulsory training to allow them to manage and help prisoners with health problems. Problems, such as addiction, homelessness and reoffending, are not isolated events but are often interconnected and hence a multiagency intervention should be applied pre- and post-release.


Education, retraining and therapeutic approach

The main argument put forward by stakeholders was that a therapeutic instead of a punitive prison setting was more helpful in the rehabilitation of prisoners to society. The committee called for a similar model to be used in Ireland. Moreover, education and training facilities were viewed as necessary to enable prisoners to develop skills that will hold them in good stead upon release. The committee believed that an opportunity to locate units of therapy and education in Irish prisons exists; this approach has already been shown to be successful in other countries, for example, the Villabona project in Spain.



Due to recent criticisms of how healthcare is managed in Irish prisons by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture, the committee recommended that the Health Information and Quality Authority (HIQA) should carry out a review of prison healthcare and that additional resources need to be assigned to allow the Health Service Executive to provide prison healthcare. 


Solitary confinement and extended lock-up

Solitary confinement and extended lock-up should be phased out. The committee called on the Government to facilitate the passage of the Private Members’ Bill entitled the Prisons (Solitary Confinement) (Amendment) Bill 2016 without delay. This Bill provides a definition of solitary confinement and provides that prisoners should not be held for 15 days or more in solitary confinement.


Sentencing and remission / early release policies

Greater emphasis should be placed on alternatives to imprisonment, such as community-based sanctions and non-custodial sentences. As many as 50% of committals are the result of unpaid fines, despite the existence of the Fines (Payment and Recovery) Act 2014, which allows for alternatives such as recovery orders and earnings orders. The committee has called for a review to determine whether these provisions are being used or not. They also contend that the payment threshold is too high (€100) and should be removed and the length of time taken to pay fines should be returned to two years, as stated in the original Fines Act 2010.


With regard to drug offences, the committee believed that non-custodial treatment options should be utilised more widely. Under current legislation, the court may place an offender under supervision of a named person or organisation for a certain period of time, and/or refer him/her for treatment or further education/training. The committee has called for a review to determine why these options are not being utilised. They further call for the expansion of Garda diversion and community projects as additional alternatives to imprisonment.


The committee welcomed the Community Return Scheme, which is an incentivised scheme where participants receive supervised community service rather than staying in prison. This programme allows qualifying prisoners to be released early to carry out unpaid community work. Prisoners that pose no threat, have served between one and eight years in prison, and at least one-half of their sentence are eligible to participate. Thus far, this programme has been shown to be successful and the committee believed that it should be expanded to release more prisoners.


Spent convictions

Limitations of the Criminal Justice (Spent Convictions and Certain Disclosures) Act 2016 were highlighted and require immediate attention. Under this Act, circumstances such as being young, having an addiction or experiencing poverty are not considered as factors that may have influenced and/or resulted in criminal behaviour. In addition, although provisions exist for young people aged up to 18 years, none exist for those aged between 18 and 24 years. Moreover, the Act does not allow for the rehabilitation of offenders that have carried out more serious crimes.



The committee proposed that a Housing First approach should be used such that prisoners upon release from prison are provided with their own home and adequate supports. This approach has been shown to result in higher reintegration into society and lower risk of reoffending.



The transformation of the current parole system into a statutory parole board independent of government control and which uses transparent and just decision-making processes was viewed as essential.


Victims of crime

Rather than offenders paying a fine, a victim surcharge system was recommended by the committee, where offenders pay a surcharge to the victim. This charge would then go towards providing support to organisations that support victims.



The IPRT welcomed the recommendations of the committee, which it believed took into consideration many of the issues raised by the IPRT to the Oireachtas committee.6,7 Although progress has been made since the initial report in 2013,2 clearly based on the evidence presented in the updated report, more work needs to be done.

To that end, ‘the committee looks forward to working proactively and productively with the Minister to address issues in the penal system in the future’ (p. 3).5


1 Thornton Hall Project Review Group (2011) Report of the Thornton Hall Project Review Group. Dublin: Department of Justice and Equality. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/15678/

2 Houses of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality (2013) Report on penal reform. Dublin: Houses of the Oireachtas. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/19618/

3 Strategic Review Group on Penal Policy (2014) Strategic review of penal policy: final report. Dublin: Department of Justice and Equality. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/22657/

4 Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality (2015) Report of the committee on a harm reducing and rehabilitative approach to possession of small amounts of illegal drugs. Dublin: Houses of the Oireachtas. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/24750/

5 Joint Committee on Justice and Equality (2018) Report on penal reform and sentencing. Dublin: Houses of the Oireachtas. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/28994/

6 Leogue J (2018) Report calls for range of prison reforms. Irish Examiner, 11 May 2018. Available online at: https://www.irishexaminer.com/ireland/report-calls-for-range-of-prison-reforms-470508.html

7 Irish Penal Reform Trust (2018) Press release: report on penal reform and sentencing. Dublin: Irish Penal Reform Trust. Available online at: http://www.iprt.ie/contents/3283

Item Type
Publication Type
Irish-related, Open Access, Article
Drug Type
All substances, Substances (not alcohol/tobacco)
Intervention Type
Harm reduction, Crime prevention
Issue Title
Issue 66, Summer 2018
September 2018
Page Range
pp. 6-8
Health Research Board
Issue 66, Summer 2018

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