I would like to thank the joint committee for their hard work on this matter and for their report which was published last March, which we touched upon recently in a meeting of the select justice committee. In summary, the joint committee report recommended that prison numbers be reduced; that prison sentences of less than six months be commuted; that standard remission be increased from one quarter to one third and an incentivised remission scheme introduced of up to one half; that legislation be introduced providing for structured release, temporary release, parole and community return; and that prison conditions and overcrowding be addressed and the use of open prisons be increased.
We are in fact travelling a route on which some of the report recommendations have already been implemented. For example, legislation has been passed to encourage the Judiciary to make community service orders more frequently. The Criminal Justice (Community Service) (Amendment) Act 2011 requires the sentencing judge to consider the imposition of community service where a custodial sentence of 12 months or less is being considered.
With regard to the issue of overcrowding, as outlined in the Irish Prison Service three year strategic plan for 2012 to 2015, it is intended to align the capacity of our prisons with the guidelines laid down by the Inspector of Prisons during the lifetime of the strategy, in so far as this is compatible with public safety and the integrity of the criminal justice system. Priority has been given to reducing the chronic overcrowding in Mountjoy, Cork and Limerick Prisons and the Dóchas Centre. There has been a significant improvement in the situation in Mountjoy and good progress has also been made at other prisons.
Construction of a new prison in Cork on the site of the current car park and adjacent greenfield site, commenced in January 2014. This new prison will have a capacity of 275 and will replace the existing outdated prison with modern cellular accommodation containing in-cell sanitation and showering facilities supported by a full range of ancillary services. A new accommodation block in the Midlands Prison was opened in December 2012. In addition, the opening of a new 20-space accommodation block, which was formerly used as an administration building, has helped alleviate the overcrowding being experienced in the Dóchas Centre.
The construction of a new wing at Limerick Prison, to replace the outdated accommodation in the existing A and B wings, forms part of the Irish Prison Service 40-month capital plan. The first phase of this development will include the construction of a new 100-cell accommodation block for male prisoners, while the second phase will include the construction of a new 50-cell accommodation block for female prisoners and a range of ancillary works. Enabling works for the project are already well advanced and the tender process for the first phase is under way. The refurbishment project in Mountjoy and the construction of the new prison in Cork reflect the Government’s determination to deliver on the commitment in the Programme for Government to modernise the prison estate and eliminate slopping out.
Major changes have also been made over the past three years with regard to structured release, temporary release and community returns. In terms of the sub-committee's report and the issues not yet addressed, in September 2012 I announced an all-encompassing strategic review of penal policy. A working group was established to carry out this review and to make recommendations on how a principled and sustainable penal system might be further enhanced, taking into account resource implications, constitutional imperatives and international obligations. In that context, the review group was asked to undertake an examination and analysis of all aspects of penal policy, including the role of penal policy in crime prevention, sentencing policy, alternatives to custody, prison accommodation and regimes, supports for reintegration and rehabilitation, and the issue of female offenders. The review group has also been asked to consider the joint committee's recommendations on penal reform.