Almost 2,000 people were sent to prison over a period of eight months for not paying fines in Northern Ireland.
The Northern Ireland Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (NIACRO) claims financial penalties do not work and Justice Minister David Ford has previously said the number of people in custody for not paying is “not acceptable”.
The Justice Department figures covered April to November last year and can include offences like failing to pay the TV licence.
A NIACRO statement said: “Where a person is at risk of offending, imposing a fine will do nothing to reduce this risk and may, in some cases, serve only to increase the likelihood of them reoffending. This is borne out by NIACRO’s 40 years of working with offenders and the families.
“Fines don’t normally change behaviour. In Northern Ireland over 1,700 people per year enter custody because they have defaulted on fines.
“Increasing the use of fines will increase the size of this group, while failing to reduce their offending behaviour.”
DUP MLA Lord Maurice Morrow asked an Assembly question about the issue late last year.
Mr Ford revealed that from April 1,926 warrants had been issued for committal to prison for non-payment of fines, with 601 cases in Belfast.
Often short periods are spent in custody for offences like non-payment of television licences, meaning there is little time to work on remedying offending behaviour, campaigners have said.
NIACRO added: “NIACRO accepts in some circumstances, fines may be appropriate. For some offences, an individual will see the fine as an effective deterrent.
“However, fines also punish those who cannot pay by criminalising them through the courts. Similar criticisms can be applied to penalty notices, particularly if (as was the case in England and Wales) a problem of over-enthusiastic application is likely.”
The organisation said conditional cautions and youth conference plans, while attempting to deal with causes of crime, can also create barriers to employment and/or provide the entry to the criminal justice system that leads to further offending.
While a youth conference order may not appear on a young person’s record once they turn 18, should they require an enhanced check for a job, their conviction will appear and an education provider may choose to cancel enrolment on a course.
“NIACRO has numerous experiences of this being the case.”
The organisation proposed a more extensive diversion system as an alternative to prosecution and to a fine-based solution.
“A failure to tackle the criminality of prisoners who serve sentences shorter than 12 months is costing England and Wales between £7 billion and £10 billion annually in reoffending. The situation is likely to be similar in Northern Ireland.
“Alternatives to prosecution should therefore also be focused on effectively diverting people from going back into the criminal justice system.”
A Government spokeswoman said: “The Department of Justice is currently preparing a Fines and Enforcement Bill designed to improve the payment of financial penalties and to reduce imprisonment for default. It is hoped to have this Bill in place during this Assembly mandate.
“The Bill will provide the potential defaulter with additional ways to pay and will aim to help people avoid getting into arrears or default in the first instance.
“Where people do get into arrears, the Bill will provide ways in which debts can be cleared and imprisonment avoided. In appropriate circumstances, this will include additional opportunities for supervised activity in the community instead of imprisonment.
“The Bill will also provide a new approach to collection by reforming the enforcement process from a primarily police-led model to one that is primarily a civilian-based collection and enforcement service.”