There were 80 prisoners in Ireland for every 100,000 members of the population last year, a slight decline on 2014, according to a new Council of Europe penal statistics report.
The report shows Europe’s prison population declined in 2015, but incarceration rates continue to vary wildly between countries.
Ireland had an incarceration rate of 80.4 inmates per 100,000 inhabitants in 2015, a small decline on 83.1 in 2014 and below the European average of 134.7 and European median of 115.7.
The highest incarceration rates have been found in Russia (439.2), Lithuania (277.7), Georgia (274.6), Azerbaijan (249.3), Latvia (223.4), Turkey (220.4) and the Republic of Moldova (219.9).
The Netherlands (53) and some Nordic countries – namely Finland (54.8), Denmark (56.1) and Sweden (58.6) – had the lowest rates.
The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) gave a cautious welcome to the figures.
Fíona Ní Chinnéide, IPRT acting executive director, told Irish Legal News: “The annual SPACE reports tell us how Ireland is performing in comparison not only to other EU countries, but also across the wider Council of Europe area. This is how we know, for example, that Ireland has among the best prisoner staff ratios across Europe, with 1 custodial staff for every 1.5 prisoners.
“The reported decrease in Ireland’s daily prison population rate to 80 per 100,000 is welcome. However, these figures relate to 2015 and numbers have begun to increase again more recently, with around 3,800 in prison during 2017 and worrying reports of over-crowding at the new Cork Prison facility. Crowded prisons are unsafe for staff and prisoners, and do not contribute to public safety in the longer term.
“Ireland’s persistent over-dependence on prison for less serious offences contributes to this, with a reported average sentence served of under 3 months. At the same time there has been a decrease in the number of community service orders handed down every year from 2012 to 2015, which suggests the Criminal Justice (Community Service) (Amendment) Act 2011 has not had the effect intended.
“At 352 entries to prison per 100,000, Ireland’s rate of imprisonment is extremely high: fifth highest among European countries and third highest in the EU. Similarly, Ireland’s rate of releases from prison, at 363 per 100,000 is the highest of all countries reported.
“This excessive flow of entries and releases from prison puts enormous burden on the Irish Prison service and other relevant services. Committals to prison for fines default is also a factor here, and suggests that further action needs to be taken by Government to end this damaging and wasteful practice.”