Thursday, 8 June 2006
Probation and Welfare Service.
Question 4: To ask the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform the measures he intends to put in place to deal with sexual offenders who breach post-release conditions; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [22257/06]
Part 5 of the Sex Offenders Act 2001 introduced a scheme under which the courts could order persons convicted of sexual offences to undergo a period of post-release supervision by a probation and welfare officer. As well as placing the sex offender under the supervision of the probation and welfare officer, the court may attach such conditions to the supervision as it considers appropriate. It is a separate offence for a sex offender to fail, without reasonable cause, to comply with any of the supervision period conditions and such a person is liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding €1,905 or imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months or more. Hence, a regime is in place.
The probation and welfare service has been in touch with my Department about the desirability of that service being given power to prosecute sex offenders who fail to comply with the conditions of their supervision. I have included a provision in the proposed criminal justice trafficking and sexual offences Bill, which is at present at an advanced stage of preparation in my Department, to give effect to the request by the probation and welfare service to allow probation officers to prosecute non-compliant sex offenders, rather than being obliged to open a file with the Garda. The legislation will include some other amendments to the 2001 Act.
Furthermore, I brought forward a number of proposals in respect of sentencing of offenders by means of Committee Stage amendments to the Criminal Justice Bill 2004, with which the Deputy is well acquainted.
The proposals will give a court power to suspend or partially suspend sentences, subject to certain conditions. This will not reduce custodial sentences but it will permit the courts to leave major further sentences hanging over offenders to give them an incentive to comply with the conditions laid down by the courts for rehabilitation and probationary purposes, as well as a significant incentive not to reoffend. The purpose is to provide an incentive to offenders to deal with issues that give rise to offending and to stay away from crime. Under the new proposals, the conditions that may be imposed will include a requirement that the person keeps the peace and is of good behaviour during the period of suspension. An order may include a condition that the person undergoes substance abuse treatment, psychological counselling, sexual offenders therapy and other treatment while in prison and after release therefrom.
Such new powers are desirable and I am pleased to note that the Deputy's party and the other parties represented at the Select Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights have broadly welcomed these proposals and have facilitated their adoption on Committee Stage. I hope to have them become law as soon as possible.
Two issues arise on foot of the Minister's reply. The first concerns the legal loopholes that must be filled and the second concerns the adequacy of resources. I am glad the Minister has proposed legislation that will resolve the loophole in order that probation and welfare officers can bring to court those who breach post-release conditions. When does the Minister expect such legislation to become law? The loophole will remain open until that time.
As for the adequacy of resources, is the Minister aware of the concerns expressed by many reputable organisations to the effect that resources, particularly in the probation and welfare service, are inadequate to monitor the operation of sex offenders' post-release conditions? Has he any proposals in this regard?
The newly appointed head of the probation and welfare service, Mr. Michael Donnellan, is implementing a complete reformation of the probation and welfare service to refocus its efforts in a manner which is most productive of its time. He reported that much of its time was absorbed in furnishing reports for court cases while he believed its resources would be better utilised handling individual offenders who are the subject of probation orders or who have just been released. This is how society would obtain the best return from the service's activities. He also has concerns that using the service within prisons may not be the best way forward. Counselling and welfare services within prisons would best be provided by the Irish Prison Service rather than an external body working inside and outside the prison. He is proceeding to address that. The probation and welfare service needs to be refocused. I praise the staff of the service.
I would like to strengthen the service in any way I can. Its new head, Michael Donellan, has a clear vision of where it is going and I have given him an assurance that I will support him in implementing reform and refocusing the service.