28. Deputy Clare Daly asked the Minister for Justice and Equality the action he has taken to deal with the rising numbers in prisons in 2018 regularly reaching over 4000 and reversing a trend of falling numbers over previous years. [49713/18]
Minister for Justice and Equality (Deputy Charles Flanagan): I am advised by my officials in the Irish Prison Service that the total number of prisoners in custody on 26 November 2018 was 3,944 compared with a bed capacity of 4,269. This represents an occupancy level of 92%. I can also advise the Deputy that according to the most recent snapshot of the prison population taken on 31 October 2018, there has been a total of 6,612 committals since 1 January 2018.
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. The Irish Prison Service regularly approves transfers out of affected prisons to other locations in order to prevent unacceptable occupancy levels.
Alternatives to custody continue to be pursued and legislation has already been passed. This includes the Criminal Justice (Community Service) (Amendment) Act 2011 which requires a sentencing judge to consider the imposition of community service where a custodial sentence of 12 months or less is being considered. The Fines (Payment and Recovery) Act 2014 provides that the Court imposing a fine shall take into account a person's financial circumstances. It further provides, inter alia, that where a person fails to pay a fine by the due date, the Court may make an attachment order to earnings as a means of recovering the unpaid fine. As a result of this legislation, we are seeing a reduction in the number of committals to prisons on short sentences. Further, since its inception in 2011, 2,250 prisoners have been released early from prison to take part in the Community Return Scheme and 2,325 prisoners have been released to take part in the Community Support Scheme.
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.