194. Deputy Clare Daly asked the Minister for Justice and Equality the steps he will take to address prison overcrowding in view of the fact that the number of prisoners in prisons here has risen to 4,049 in April 2019 from 3,890 in April 2018. [20349/19]


Minister for Justice and Equality (Deputy Charles Flanagan): I wish to advise the Deputy that current penal policy is largely informed by the recommendations of the Penal Policy Review Group (PPRG) report from 2014. The PPRG advocated an approach to crime and the penal system, emphasising rehabilitation and advocating for an improved penal system, the reduction of reliance on imprisonment as a sanction and an increased focus on alternatives.
One of its recommendations is the adoption of a strategy to reduce prisoner numbers to a safe level, subject to the need to ensure proper protection of the public. This strategy is currently being developed and is also being informed by the Oireachtas Justice Committee Report 2018 on Penal Policy.
I can further advise the Deputy that there has been significant progress in several areas relating to alternatives to custody.
The Criminal Justice (Community Service) (Amendment) Act 2011, requires judges, when considering imposing a sentence of imprisonment of 12 months or less, to first consider the appropriateness of community service as an alternative to imprisonment.
In 2017, the Probation Service managed 2215 Community Service Orders.
The Probation Service piloted Integrated Community Service in 2016, the model allows for the use of up to one third of Community Service hours to facilitate participants’ attendance at programmes that address the issues connected with their offending behaviour, i.e. education/training, addiction/drug treatment, counselling, community work and group work.
Community Return is an initiative whereby carefully selected prisoners, serving sentences from one to eight years, can be granted reviewable temporary release coupled with a requirement to do community service work. Since its inception, 2,279 prisoners have been released to take part in this scheme. There were also 2,460 prisoners serving sentences between 3 and 12 months released to take part in the Community Support Scheme.
The Joint Agency Response to Crime (JARC) project which is in operation since 2016 involves an intense and highly collaborative approach by agencies to the supervision and rehabilitation of prolific offenders in particular areas of Dublin and beyond.
The Fines (Payment and Recovery) Act 2014, was enacted in April 2014 and commenced on 11 January 2016. It will ensure that there are sufficient alternatives available to courts to reduce the need to commit anyone to prison for the non-payment of fines.
I can inform the Deputy that the total number of prisoners in custody on 14 May 2019 was 4,016 compared with a bed capacity of 4,244. This represents an occupancy level of 95%. I can also advise the Deputy that according to the most recent snapshot of the prison population taken on 30 April 2019 the provisional figure for committal to prison is 3,165, which is an increase of 422 or 15.4% from the same time last year when the figure for committals from 1 January 2018 to 30 April was 2,743.
It has to be acknowledged that the Irish Prison Service does not have the option of refusing committals and must accept all prisoners committed by the Courts. The prison system is, of course, subject to peaks and troughs. Numbers are particularly high when the Courts are at their busiest, giving rise to a high number of committals. As a result, almost all of the closed institutions are operating at or near full capacity.
Where the number of prisoners exceeds the maximum capacity in any prison, my officials make every effort to deal with this through a combination of inter-prison transfers and structured Temporary Release. Decisions in relation to temporary release are considered on a case by case basis and the safety of the public is paramount when those decisions are made.
I am advised that plans are advanced for the re-opening of accommodation not currently being used within the system, including the re-opening of the Training Unit which itself will provide approximately an additional 90 spaces.
In addition, an audit of existing accommodation is underway, in order to identify where additional spaces can be brought on stream with the potential to provide in excess of an additional 100 spaces.
I have also recently signed a construction contract for the female prison in Limerick as well as a new wing to Limerick male prison. Together, they will provide 130 new spaces.
I regret the reversal of the trend towards lower prisoner numbers, however, the Deputy will appreciate that I must be respectful of the independence of the judiciary and their total discretion in deciding whether or not to imprison persons appearing before the Courts.