Dáil Éireann - Volume 432 - 17 June, 1993

Ceisteanna—Questions. Oral Answers. - Prison Committals.

1. Mr. G. Mitchell asked the Minister for Justice the estimated percentage of persons held in prison for each of the years from 1990 to 1992 who were in prison for non-payment of fines or non-payment of debts to third parties.

35. Mr. O'Malley asked the Minister for Justice the reason the percentage of persons in custody on warrants relating to civil debts and the non-payment of fines has been reduced from 14 per cent at the time of Whitaker report in 1985 to 1 per cent at present; and if she will make a statement on the matter.

Minister for Justice (Mrs. Geoghegan-Quinn): I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 and 35 together.

Approximately 14 per cent of total committals to prison in 1985 were committals for non-payment of civil debt or fines. The corresponding figure in 1990— which is the latest year for which accurate figures are currently available — is still approximately 14 per cent. However, the number of people actually in custody at any one time for non-payment is of the order of 1 per cent of the total prisons population.

I should add that this is a subject on which there has been widespread misunderstanding and it would be helpful, perhaps, if I were to add a few words of explanation.

The number of people sentenced to [1244] imprisonment in respect of any category of offence provides no indication as to the percentage of prison places likely to be occupied by such people at any one time. This point is best illustrated by contrasting, say, the case of murder — which attracts a life sentence — with that where a minor offence is involved and a sentence of three-six months would be the norm.

Ten murderers will occupy ten prison cells for several years but, during the same period, one cell may be sufficient to acommodate twice or three times that number of minor offenders, in succession — because of the fact that each minor offender serves a short period of imprisonment. I hope that this example will serve to clarify the distinction between the numbers sentenced for a particular offence and the proportion of offenders occupying prison places for that offence at any one time.

Many debtors make payment either on committal or shortly afterwards so that the average amount of time spent by individual debtors in prison is quite short. Some commentators, of course, take the view that, even if debtors occupy only 1 per cent of prison places, it is wrong in principle that they should ever go to prison.

The fact is, however, that imprisonment for debtors is, in practice, very much the option of last resort. It is a fact, as I have just stated, that many debtors actually pay up when the prospect of detention looms and the question that has to be asked is whether the absence of imprisonment as an option of final resort would mean, in practice, that many more creditors, including those in less affluent circumstances, would then simply be left to carry their debts by unscrupulous debtors.

We can certainly look at the possibility of applying other solutions in the case of those who, despite various opportunities to do so, simply refuse to pay their debts. We must not delude ourselves that it is not the case that each and every debtor is simply an unfortunate victim of poverty. Nor is it safe to assume that refusal to [1245] pay one's debts invariably amounts to proof of inability to pay.

Mr. G. Mitchell: Is the Minister aware that the committee of inquiry into the penal system — the Whitaker Committee — pointed out that for every 100 fewer prisoners there would be a saving of £3.8 million in running costs and £12.7 million in capital costs at 1985 costings? Would she agree that in those circumstances the last place for anyone who does not pay a fine is prison and that every opportunity should be availed of either through community service orders, seizure of goods, deduction at source of wages or social welfare to recover amounts due since in effect this is a penalty on the State in terms of the costs involved?

Mrs. Geoghegan-Quinn: I am well aware of the recommendations contained in the Whitaker report. As the Deputy and the House will be aware, I have commenced a major review of overall prison policy which will deal with a wide range of options, all of which are being considered, including the last option referred to by Deputy Mitchell — and which has been recommended strongly by Deputy Harney — an attachment of earnings system. We would all prefer to see more prison places available and more use being made of penalties outside the prison system. It is important to note that people are only committed to prison for non-payment of debts as a last resort by the courts. We are talking only about 1 per cent of the prison population at any one time and about people who can afford to pay their debts but who have wilfully refused to do so; that is the instance in which the court puts them into prison. As I said in my reply I am not sure if we were to take away that final option whether innocent people would end up carrying debts which they can ill afford to carry.

Mr. G. Mitchell: I understand from the Minister's reply that 14 per cent of the prison population would fall into the category of those imprisoned for non-payment of debts or fines. Is the Minister [1246] aware that while the 14 per cent are detained, a rotating door policy is operating for those involved in violent crime and that hardened criminals are out on the streets? People could be penalised by means of confiscation, community service orders, deduction at source. Would the Minister not consider in the interests of the community and in the interests of cost effectiveness that we should look at every possibility other than imprisonment for people who do not pay their fines since that is also what the Whitaker report recommended in 1985, almost eight years ago?

Mrs. Geoghegan-Quinn: We should be careful not to confuse committal with people actually held in custody. I said that approximately 14 per cent of total committals to prison in 1985 were committals for non-payment of civil debt or fines but the number of people in custody for this particular offence, at any one time, is only 1 per cent of the total prison population. It is not true that hardened criminals are out on the streets.

Mr. G. Mitchell: It is true.

Mrs. Geoghegan-Quinn: If the Deputy has evidence that hardened criminals are out on the streets of Dublin — which would be the place best known to him — then he should present that evidence to the Garda Síochána.

Mr. Carey: That is a cod.

Mrs. Geoghegan-Quinn: In any case in which a hardened criminal has been found guilty of an offence he has been put into prison. It is not true to say that 1 per cent of the prison population is preventing the jailing of hardened criminals.

Mr. G. Mitchell: Was it not hardened criminals who carried out the attacks on tourists in the past few weeks? Are they in prison? What evidence does the Minister require before she begins to act and stops sending these problems to commissions and inquiries? Would the Minister [1247] agree that if any two people in this House or elsewhere were to engage in a civil transaction the last thing the State would want to do is act as guarantor and send one of them to prison for noncompliance? The last place anybody should be is in prison because it is penalising the taxpayer. There are ways of penalising people who do not pay their fines, for example, by confiscation, by community work orders and deduction at source——

An Ceann Comhairle: We are having repetition. This is the third time the Deputy has referred to that aspect of the matter.

Mr. G. Michell: Can the Minister examine the whole question of imprisoning people and start by imprisoning those who are attacking our citizens and visitors to the city?

An Ceann Comhairle: The question deals with people in prison for non-payment of fines or debts.

Mrs. Geoghegan-Quinn: I have already said that the major review of prison policy — the first which has taken place in many years — is examining a whole range of options including prison spaces, community service orders and a recommendation from Deputy Harney on the attachment of earnings. All those options are being considered actively and as a matter of urgency. The Deputy need have no worries that there will be any delay because it is as much in my interest as in anybody else's to ensure that we have a prison system that fits the society in which we live and is suitable for the people we need to keep in secure custody.