OLWEN LYNER, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (Niacro) gives her view on imprisonment for fine defaulting:
The Detail’s research into the extent of imprisonment for fine default in Northern Ireland sadly doesn’t surprise us. It’s an issue we’ve been campaigning for change on for many years.
Back in July, the Department of Justice (DOJ) published a consultation paper on proposals to reduce the levels of fine default in Northern Ireland. Their own figures demonstrate that over the last three years, more than 5,000 people have been sent to prison for non-payment of a fine. Most of these fines are issued for relatively minor offences, and many for civil matters.
We believe it’s a real indictment of the system that more people are in fact sent to prison for non-payment of fines every year than for substantively imprisonable criminal offences.
What we want people to realise is that each of these figures represents a real person. A person who may have a family or dependents for whom they have caring responsibilities. A person who may have mental health issues or learning difficulties. A person who might have a job, a tenancy, a mortgage or other social relationships which will be put under additional strain as a result of a period of imprisonment.
In imposing a fine, the judge presiding over their case, who knew all of the details and circumstances of the offence, decided that imprisonment would not be an appropriate punishment in those particular circumstances. But because many people cannot afford to pay their fines within the timescale, or perhaps don’t understand the requirements placed on them by the courts, they end up being sent to prison.
And this continuous revolving door of people who are being imprisoned for short periods is having a disruptive effect on our prisons.
The initial period of committal to prison is the most resource intensive, requiring assessments of physical and mental health, benefits, family support and various administrative procedures. A sentence of just seven days doesn’t allow for any engagement with the educational services available within the prisons, and as such has no rehabilitative effect. And by expending so much of prisons’ limited resources on those people who are only going to be there for a matter of days, we’re preventing prison officers from being able to engage effectively with those serving longer sentences who would benefit from educational and rehabilitative programmes.
But what most people forget about is the impact of imprisonment on families and all of the work we do with those left behind tells us that it is immense. Children may be placed into temporary care, relationships may breakdown and additional pressure is placed on the person who is already struggling to cope with the new sentence they face.
Recent research into the impact of imprisonment on families indicates that even in cases where convictions were subsequently overturned, only 8 of 22 marriages survived. The judges never intended for people to lose their homes, their jobs or their families, but this is often the result of imprisonment.
It is simply not a proportionate response to these offences. These people don’t pose a threat to public safety, nor have they committed serious offences. And what’s more, it’s not acceptable to us that those who can afford to, have the option of buying their way out of imprisonment. In effect, we’re imprisoning those less well off for being unable to pay their debts.
What we need is more support for people who simply cannot afford to pay their fines by the court’s deadline. When you think about it logically, how can it make sense for a woman who can’t afford a television licence to be given a fine, which she won’t be able to afford either? The courts don’t think it’s a serious enough offence to send her to prison, but if she fails to pay the fine, that’s the only option available to them at that stage. Think about the impact that will have on her children; on her ability to get a job; and on her access to credit in the future.
We need more advice and guidance for those who need assistance to develop a payment plan, particularly those who don’t have a job in the current economic climate. We need better access to and availability of repayment options, so that people who need to split their repayments into £5 per week can do so at their local post office for instance.
But most of all, we need better alternatives to be available to the courts instead of financial penalties. That means we need a more imaginative approach to enable people to make amends – through schemes offering community reparation. And that way, prison places can be reserved for those who pose the most serious risks, so we can all focus our efforts on reducing crime and its impact on people and communities.