Thousands jailed for non-payment of fines in NI

David Ford Justice Minister David Ford said the number of people going to jail for fine-defaulting was unsustainable

It has been revealed that thousands of people in Northern Ireland have been imprisoned for failing to pay fines for minor crimes.

These include non-payment of fines for not having a light on a bicycle, dropping litter, overtaking on the inside and fishing without a licence.

There have been 14,259 prison sentences for fine-defaulting since January 2006.

The figures were uncovered by investigative news website The Detail.

They found that around 2,000 people have been sent to prison every year since 2006 for the non-payment of court fines.

Some people will have been sentenced more than once for non-payment of fines during the period.

Fine defaulters make up around a third of total admissions to NI jails.

The Detail examined information released under freedom of information by the Department of Justice on over 14,000 prison sentences served for fine defaulting from January 2006 until 31 October 2011.

For each of the 14,259 cases, the Northern Ireland Prison Service had given the gender of the prisoner concerned, their age group, a description of their offence and the balance due on their fine when they were taken into custody.

The largest unpaid fine was £500,000 for evading customs duty on goods and the lowest were three fines of £1.

The Department of Justice said that 23 fines recorded as 'zero' were an "input error" in the data.

'Not acceptable'

The Detail found that 89% of the cases involved fines of £500 or less, while 92% of the sentences given were between seven and 14 days.

The 14,259 fines totalled £4.8m, and these were written off when the sentence was served.

Prison fine defaulters chart Breakdown of offences committed by fine defaulters sent to prison

Other offences for which people were imprisoned include non-payment of fines for begging, having a child in a car without a seatbelt, fishing without a licence, failing to wear a seatbelt, overtaking on the inside and not paying a shoplifting fine of just £6.89.

Three people were jailed for failing to pay fines for allowing children to be absent from school.

Their fines ranged from £165 to £755, and their sentences were between seven and 28 days long.

Almost half of all of the cases involved people prosecuted for motoring offences, while non-payment of fines for not having a television licence resulted in 728 people starting a custodial sentence.

The chief executive of the Northern Ireland Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (NIACRO), Olwen Lyner, said they had been campaigning for change on the issue.

"What we want people to realise is that each of these figures represents a real person who may lose their homes, their jobs or their families as a result of imprisonment," she said.

"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.

"It is also not acceptable to us that those who can afford to, have the option of buying their way out of imprisonment."

The Department of Justice recently closed public consultation on new proposals to deal with fine defaulting in Northern Ireland, while the Probation Board is leading a pilot community-service scheme as an alternative to custody which begins in January.

Justice Minister David Ford said: "The number of people going into custody for the non-payment of fines is unsustainable and is at odds with the reformed justice system we are trying to build in Northern Ireland."

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