Andrew Lynch: Now Ahern wants to let criminals off. Has he lost his marbles completely?
So much for zero tolerance. In the ongoing fight against crime, Dermot Ahern has waved the white flag by announcing new legislation that will encourage judges to impose community services on so-called minor offenders instead of sending them to jail.
By doing so, the Minister for Justice is effectively admitting that he has allowed our prison overcrowding problem to get completely out of hand -- and his only solution is to take people who would normally be behind bars and get them to pick up litter or paint a few walls instead.
Ahern's dilemma is simple.
Over the past five years, the prison population in this country has virtually doubled.
There has been an increase of 10pc in the past 12 months alone, while the overall figure is set to reach 6,000 for the first time early in 2011.
Meanwhile, our Victorian jails simply cannot cope with such a steady influx of new inmates.
Earlier this year, Kathleen McMahon resigned as governor of Dochas, warning that overcrowding at the female prison in Mountjoy had created an accident waiting to happen.
The recent incident in which three officers were hospitalised after being beaten by inmates with pool cues and balls in a sock suggests that she knew what she was talking about.
As usual, this Government has ignored the problem for years and is only now starting to play catch-up.
New prison spaces are being frantically built across the country, with a new block at Wheatfield opened yesterday.
Unfortunately, it all seems to be too little, too late -- and, in the meantime, judges must decide what to do with the criminals coming before them every day who should clearly be removed from the community but have nowhere to be sent.
Ahern's solution makes a mockery of his tough-guy image.
Under new legislation which is expected to be enacted quickly, it will become mandatory for judges to consider community service for people who would otherwise be given a three- to six-month prison sentence.
While this won't actually tie the judges' hands, it means that the Government is sending them a clear message -- stop sending criminals to jail because we just don't have room for them.
For a start, it would be fascinating to know what Dermot Ahern considers to be a "petty crime".
Many of the people sentenced to six months or less in our courts are guilty of vandalism, shoplifting or disturbing the peace.
While these may not be hanging offences, they are exactly the kind of transgressions that make life a misery for law-abiding citizens.
Even if you agree that too many people are sent to prison, however, Ahern's new law is clearly a stop-gap solution that merely shifts the problem from one area to another.
As a series of court cases have heard in recent years, our probation services are already dangerously over-stretched.
It is hard to see how they can cope with a massive increase in numbers, including many criminals who would under normal circumstances be locked up for the safety of others.
The Irish Prison Service's last annual report shows that 5,750 people received sentences of less than three months in 2009, while a further 1,905 got a sentence of between three and six months.
Meanwhile, the Probation Service received 1,667 community service orders in the same period.
It would be nice to think that the service could cope with such a dramatic shift in policy -- but without a similar increase in resources, it's hard not to fear the worst.
The irony is that when Fianna Fail were elected in 1997, they promised a "zero tolerance" approach that would deal harshly with minor offenders in order to discourage them from turning into major ones.
For most of the past 13 years, various ministers for justice have actually been encouraging the courts to impose tougher sentences.
Now Dermot Ahern has turned that philosophy on its head.
You'd have to ask, has the government's bootboy completely lost his marbles? He's certainly lost his bottle.