The scandal of sending fine defaulters to jail

19 Jan 2015 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 19 Jan 2015

fine defaulters

At a time when public services are on their knees and when mass redundancies are planned for public sector workers, how can the Department of Justice justify spending around £24 million a year jailing people for failing to pay fines?

The Department recently submitted its budget proposals for consultation. These are prefaced by a page devoted to “vision and values” which contains the usual mixture of pomposity and vacu-speak that are clearly the detritus of some “facilitated workshop” at which senior civil servants wasted their time and our money spouting platitudes at each other over the fizzy water and Fox’s glacier mints.

There is a section called “Values”, and one of the aspirations is to provide value for money.   But why say in three words what sounds better when you string a whole series of clichés together using bullet points?

Like this:

  • "maximising the benefit from available resources, providing value for money;
  • aspiring to always improve;
  • and promoting imaginative and innovative ways to create a positive impact"

My favourite phrase is “aspiring to always improve”, it’s one that David Brent would be proud of.

Then we come to a really seismic pronouncement for those who run a government department. It’s called “Taking responsibility” and includes the following management-speak bullet point:

• "assuming responsibility, taking on challenges and delivering solutions;”

There is no record as to whether this extraordinary document was pulled together with the help of external consultants at a cost of many thousands or whether the civil servants managed to do it by themselves. But there is one extra section, apparently inserted at the insistence of the Minister under the heading “thematic priorities”. One of these is a commitment to “faster, fairer justice.”

The document does not trouble to define this admirable concept. By doing so we’d be leaving the world of the break-out room and the flip chart and getting into real jurisprudence. That would not be a good idea because it would inevitably confront the department with questions it cannot possibly have any satisfactory answers to.

Like for example why fine defaulters continue to be imprisoned in Northern Ireland.

Today, right now people are being jailed for failing to pay fines for offences as trivial as failing to have a light on a bicycle or wearing a seatbelt in a car or dropping litter on the street.

Every year around 2,000 people are imprisoned here for defaulting on fines.

Sending someone to prison costs £3,000 per day: the average time served by fine defaulters is four days so that’s around £12,000 a time excluding court, police and legal costs and ignoring the disruption made to the prison regime. You should not even need a calculator to multiply 12,000 by 2,000 but that’s what the Department is “investing” in this practice every single year.

So let’s have a closer look at the Department of Justice’s “values” in this context. How does imprisoning fine defaulters “maximise the benefit from available resources” except in the very narrow sense of helping to ensure that our prisons are always full?

Does imprisoning fine defaulters provide “value for money"?

Well maybe Mr Ford can explain to his colleagues on the executive and the wider public, particularly those in danger of being made redundant by public spending cuts, how his Department considers it good value to bang people up at a cost of £12,000 for failing to pay a £5 fine, especially when we don’t even get the fiver back, that gets written off with the sentence?

Or is this an “imaginative and innovative way of creating a positive impact”?

Of course it is none of these things. This is a 19th Century practice long since abandoned as a routine feature of sentencing in advanced jurisdictions.

The cost is huge, the benefits to society non-existent and in many cases criminalises people for being poor. In almost all circumstances it is avoidable: either by improving the efficiency of court collection services or else by imposing alternative sentences that do not involve the loss of liberty.

This brings us to the “thematic priority” of Minister Ford and his admirable attachment to faster and fairer justice.

Let’s just look at the “faster” bit.

The perversity of imprisoning fine defaulters was been continuously raised for many years.  In 2007 the Northern Ireland Committee at Westminster delivered a report which stated that sending people to prison for defaulting on fines "represents a disproportionate demand on scarce resources" - the committee said it was "astounded" that 59% of people who enter prison in Northern Ireland are fine defaulters, compared to just over 2% in England and Wales.

In response the then direct rule minister Paul Goggins promised the practice would be scrapped with prison reserved for extreme cases.

In 2011 The Detail highlighted the imprisonment of fine defaulters. Mr Ford was quite rightly alarmed: he said that the number of people going into custody for the non-payment of fines was unsustainable.

“It is also at odds with the reformed justice system we are trying to build in Northern Ireland,” he said.

There is no doubting Ford’s commitment to abolish the practice. Change is apparently on its way – there has been a consultation on the issue and we are promised new legislation by way of a Fines and Enforcement Bill sometime this year. Which is terrific if you think eight years and counting demonstrates a commitment to “faster justice”.

Meanwhile the department is struggling to live up to being “fairer”. In 2013 imprisoning fine defaulters was suspended for a while after a challenge to its legality.

Given that everyone agrees that the practice is a complete waste of resources, logic would have dictated that it would have stayed suspended until the new system was in place.

Sadly the policy was quietly reintroduced in June of last year and the waste of public money continues unabated.

So much for value for money, creating “positive impact” and providing “faster, fairer justice.”

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