Seanad Éireann - Volume 131 - 12 February, 1992
Adjournment Matter. - Prison Overcrowding.
An Cathaoirleach An Cathaoirleach
An Cathaoirleach: I welcome the Minister to the House and congratulate him on his new appointment and wish him well. We are delighted his first active duty is here with us.
Mr. McGowan Mr. McGowan
Mr. McGowan: I, too, would like to join in congratulating the Minister on this very important portfolio and wish him a very successful term in office. I join with the Cathaoirleach in welcoming him to the Seanad on his first official duty. I am very glad that the Minister found time to come in and listen to my problem.
In County Donegal and in all Border counties a person is about a hundred times more likely to be stopped for a motoring offence than in any other part of the country. For security reasons there are check points and that is acceptable and understandable. I totally support the maintenance of check points. They should continue. However, my concern is that the motoring public in Border areas have had to live with them for over 20 years. They have resulted in minor motoring offences coming to the surface daily, for example, in the area of tax, insurance, etc. I have kept some newspaper cuttings going back to 1984. In general the penalty for these offences depends on the justice, the court, the number of hearings and the degree of the offence. I am reluctant to imply that  judges do not always give fair play. In one case a motorist was fined £25 for having no tax and broken number plates and in another the Probation Act was applied. That was where the person had no insurance, had broken number plates back and front and the car had not been taxed for four years. In another case a man was fined £150 for not having his car taxed.
It has reached a stage where in my county, and I am sure in other Border counties, the gardaí phone each station to see if there are people to be brought to Mountjoy. A van or minibus is organised to call at the station to collect those who are not in a position to pay fines of, say, £150 and they elect to serve five days in Mountjoy. Recently, a family man was not in a position to pay a fine of £150. He elected to go to Mountjoy and he was taken there in a station wagon with a large number of people. I spoke to him on his return and he said it was awful. People were eating bags of crisps and chips and sleeping on the floor. I estimated that the expense involved to the State in bringing people from Donegal to Mountjoy is about £1,000 per person taking into account security expenses, their stay in Mountjoy and their return to Donegal. Yet, the amount of the fine involved is £150.
The chance of being detected for a crime of this kind is a hundred times greater in Border counties than in the rest of Ireland. It poses a serious problem and one that the Minister and his Department must look at as a matter of urgency. One can buy a secondhand motor car for about £500. Car tax costs £250 and if one is a first time driver, insurance can cost anything up to £1,800. The temptation for a motorist to buy an old banger and get on the road for £500 with no insurance or tax is very great. The authorities must deal with this effectively. There is a problem here and I ask the Minister to examine the possibility of dealing with it by way of on-the-spot fines or some other method. I leave it to the good sense of the Minister and his Department to find a solution.
 The law should be fairly administered. It may sound drastic but I would rather see the vehicle being confiscated and taken from the person. The vehicle could be given back when the fine was paid. That would eliminate the problem of over-crowding in our prisons. That may sound drastic but it is still better than the present system which is unworkable. At present, people have to stand in queues outside the court. I am sure that district justices would welcome any improvement in the system and I ask the Minister to look at this problem.
The second part of the problem is that the courts are filled with this kind of offender. Different justices deal with the offences in different ways. I thank the Minister for coming to the House. I know he is energetic and that he will tackle this problem. I wish him good luck for the future.
Minister for Justice (Mr. Flynn) Pádraig Flynn
Minister for Justice (Mr. Flynn): I take this opportunity to convey to the Cathaoirleach my congratulations on his appointment as Cathaoirleach of the Seanad. It is a great honour. He brings great skills and a great reputation to the office and I know he will bring honour to the office. I would also like to express my thanks to Senator McGowan for the very kind words he and the Cathaoirleach expressed on my appointment as Minister for Justice.
It is interesting that it should be in this House that I make my first contribution in this, very important portfolio. The opportunity to contribute to the deliberations of Seanad Éireann is always important and, as I said, it is interesting that it should be here that I make my first contribution as Aire Dlí agus Cirt. I hope I will get many other opportunities to appear in this House. I have always been very impressed by the consistently high standard of debate in the Upper House. As I start my tenure as Minister for Justice, I assure the Cathaoirleach of my support and my goodwill at all times for the very important work undertaken by all Members of this House.
Senator McGowan suggested that there is a problem with overcrowding in  our prisons and that that is being exacerbated by the number of persons serving custodial sentences in respect of what might be termed minor breaches of the Road Traffic Act. It is very rare for a person to be sentenced to imprisonment for a minor traffic offence. What happens on occasion is that persons found guilty of offences, which are in themselves relatively minor, have a fine imposed on them by the court. If they do not pay the fine, they can end up serving a short term in prison in default of the payment. The extent to which this happens is often overstated.
On any given day there are approximately 2,200 persons in custody in the institutions operated by my Department. The institutions I refer to include prisons and places of detention, such as Wheatfield and the open centre at Loughan House, Shelton Abbey and Shangannagh. Within this daily population figure of about 2,200 no more than 40 persons, about 2 per cent of the total, would be in custody on any given day as a result of defaulting on the payment of fines imposed by the courts for traffic offences. I am sure the House would agree that puts the issue in perspective.
A further point that needs to be made is that in all cases the sentence is always a very short one — usually one, two or a few days. Clearly offenders in this category are not a significant feature in the overall custodial accommodation equation. It could well be argued, however, that there are nevertheless 40 persons too many in the jails and that the spaces occupied by them would be far better utilised by other persons who have committed much more serious offences. Appealing as that argument might seem at face value, it is nonetheless flawed. It should be borne in mind that custodial sentences are generally applied only as a last resort, after all other possible options, such as community based sanctions to which I will refer later, have been tried without success. The courts take into account as far as possible the person's means when fixing the fine. In many cases such persons are only sent to prison in the face of a refusal to pay a fine in  circumstances where the offender clearly has the means to pay.
I referred to community based sanctions. Senator McGowan referred to them also and asked that they be considered more favourably in dealing with these kinds of cases. It is important in the context of Senator McGowan's comments to look at them in a little more detail. As I indicated at the outset, approximately 2,200 persons are in custody on any one day of the week; allied to this there are a further 3,200 persons on alternatives to custody. These alternative sanctions include community service orders, probation, deferment of sentence and fines. Non-custodial sanctions of this nature are an increasingly significant feature of the criminal justice system. I will illustrate that point for Senator McGowan: the number of community service orders made by the courts increased from 698 in 1985 when the scheme started, to 1,349 in the first nine months of last year.
I welcome that trend and I am very pleased that Senator McGowan referred to it in a supportive way also. I am committed to ensuring it will continue on these lines during my tenure as Minister for Justice. My Department are alive to the possibility of extending the scope of the community service order — I take it that is the thrust of Senator McGowan's proposal this evening.
We are considering introducing a system of attachment of earnings to secure payment of fines. Senator McGowan referred to this in a slightly different way — he mentioned the confiscation of vehicles but it really comes to the same thing. However, we will actively consider that issue. Any proposals which may emerge in that regard will be announced in the usual way and I hope to do something about it because 40 people are taking up spaces that could be utilised for more serious offenders, and that possibility should be minimised as much as possible.
For the sake of completeness, it is fair that I should place on the record the principal developments which have taken place, and which are about to take place,  in relation to prison accommodation in general. This will be of interest to Senators and to the House. In this regard, the most recent addition to the capacity of the prison system was the opening of a place of detention at Wheatfield in June 1989. Wheatfield has accommodation for 150 offenders. Other projects in the pipeline include the provision of a new unit at Mount joy and the refurbishment of St. Patrick's Institution for young offenders which, when completed, will provide accommodation for an extra 400 offenders. In fact, the total expenditure on the prison building programme since 1987 now amounts to about £31 million. It is not an insignificant sum when one takes into account the many other demands on the Exchequer since that time.
No Minister for Justice has ever denied that there are accommodation problems in Irish prisons, and I do not deny it either. The problems are there. Money has been committed from scarce resources to try to deal with it but more  has to be done. Some of the alternatives to custodial sentences that the Senator referred to will have to be pursued. The House may be assured that there are no circumstances in which pressure of accommodation will be allowed to affect the ability of the prisons to retain in custody persons convicted of serious offences and who, if released, would be a danger to the community.
It is clear that the Government are committed to providing sufficient accommodation for those given custodial sentences by the courts. I intend to continue this policy and support the use, as the Senator recommended, of non-custodial sanctions such as I have outlined in appropriate cases. I hope to be able to return to that matter in a more positive way in the not too distant future.
Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a chur in iúl duit, a Chathaoirligh, agus comhghairdeas ó mo chroí as ucht tú a cheapadh mar Chathaoirleach.
The Seanad adjourned at 8.20 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 13 February 1992.
Seanad Éireann 131 Adjournment Matter. Prison Overcrowding.