Wednesday, 28 April 2021
Criminal Justice (Amendment) Bill 2021: Second Stage
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
The Criminal Justice (Amendment) Bill 2021 is a relatively short but significant item of legislation. I am very pleased to introduce it to the House. The purpose of the Bill is to provide for the repeal of the second or subsequent mandatory sentences in the areas of firearms and misuse of drugs. It also addresses similar mandatory type offences in older legislation dealing with the concealment of stolen goods, illicit distillation and licensing laws.
The Supreme Court ruling in its judgment of 15 May 2019 in Wayne Ellis v. the Minister for Justice and Equality, found subsection 8 of section 27(A) of the Firearms Act 1964, regarding possession of a firearm or ammunition in suspicious circumstances, to be repugnant to the Constitution. The subsection provides for a mandatory sentence of a minimum of five years for a second or subsequent serious firearms offence. The court held that the Oireachtas may impose mandatory penalties but only if they apply to all persons. It is not constitutionally permissible for the Oireachtas to specify a mandatory penalty that only applies to a limited class of persons, such as those who had previously committed one or more listed offences. The application of a penalty in such cases is the administration of justice and under Article 34 of the Constitution may only be administered by the courts. The Attorney General has advised that this subsection, and all similar provisions on the Statute Book, should be repealed and that no further sentencing hearings should proceed until the relevant legislation has been amended.
The full implications of the judgment for existing sentences have yet to be worked through by the courts. I understand a number of cases are under way and Deputies will appreciate that I cannot say anything that might be regarded as prejudicing existing proceedings. In this context, however, my attention has been drawn to paragraph 22 of the judgment of Mr. Justice Peter Charleton in the Ellis case, in which he states:
This does not mean, and should not mean in this case, the automatic release of the offender. The correct disposal of the matter requires further submission as to the imposition of a just sentence before the Court of Appeal.
I understand that the issue in these cases is that the appropriate sentencing regime be applied.
The purpose of this Bill is to rectify the constitutional infirmity identified by the Supreme Court for the purpose of determining future sentences in these cases. The Supreme Court ruling does not affect provisions in the statute which provide for presumptive minimum sentences where there is judicial discretion and the issue is not addressed by the Bill.
The scope of the Bill is therefore limited. The sentencing provision that was the subject of the Ellis case was introduced by the Criminal Justice Act 2007. The 2007 Act had a number of similar provisions affecting a number of firearms offences and certain drug offences. While the court had discretion in the case of a first conviction, its discretion was fettered in respect of a second or subsequent conviction and there were mandatory minimum penalties that had to be imposed. The Bill provides the courts with discretion in respect of a second or subsequent firearms conviction in this regard. Accordingly, the Bill provides for the repeal of all instances within the Firearms and Misuse of Drugs Acts in respect of a second or subsequent conviction being mandatory.
The first three sections of the Bill refer to pre-1922 legislation that is still in force in Ireland. These older Acts have unusual provisions, with a type of mandatory sentence for repeat offenders. These, too, are in conflict with the judgment in the Ellis case and are being amended accordingly.
Section 1 relates to section 49 of the Dublin Police Magistrates Act 1808 and mandatory penalties for second or subsequent offences relating to the concealment of stolen goods. Section 2 relates to section 40 of the Illicit Distillation (Ireland) Act 1831 and penalties for second or subsequent offences relating to illicit making of malt and distillation of spirits. Section 3 relates to section 32 of the Refreshment Houses (Ireland) Act 1860 and penalties for second or subsequent offences relating to wine licences for refreshment houses. Section 4 relates to the amendment of section 15 of the Firearms Act 1925, which provides for penalties for the offence of possession of firearms with intent to endanger life.
Section 5 relates to the amendment of section 26 of the Firearms Act 1964, which provides for penalties for possession of a firearm while taking a vehicle without authority; section 27 of the Firearms Act 1964, which provides for penalties for use of firearms to assist or aid escape; section 27A of the Firearms Act 1964, which provides for penalties for possession of a firearm or ammunition in suspicious circumstances and section 27B of the Firearms Act 1964, which provides for penalties for carrying a firearm with criminal intent.
Section 6 relates to the amendment of section 27 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977, which provides for penalties for a range of offences relating to the misuse of drugs. Section 7 relates to the amendment of section 12A of Firearms and Offensive Weapons Act 1990, which provides for penalties for shortening the barrel of shotgun or rifle and similar offences. Section 8 relates to the amendment of section 25 of the Criminal Justice Act 2007, which provides penalties for the commission of a scheduled offence where a person has already been convicted on indictment of a scheduled offence within a specified period. Section 9 relates to the amendment of section 24 of the Parole Act 2019, which provides that a person serving a minimum term of imprisonment under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977 shall not be eligible for parole before expiry of the minimum term. Section 10 is a standard provision providing for the Short Title and commencement.
My Department is also considering the implications of the judgment for existing criminal cases where the persons concerned may have been convicted of a relevant offence but a sentence has not, as of yet, been imposed by the courts. Further to legal advice, I will give consideration to the tabling of a Committee Stage amendment that would clarify the sentencing regime that would apply in such cases. There will, of course, be an opportunity on Committee Stage to discuss in more detail any aspect of the Bill that Deputies wish to explore further.
First, we welcome this legislation, which as the Minister of State said is to deal with the Supreme Court case of Wayne Ellis v. the Minister for Justice and Equality in May 2019 and the anomalies that threw up.
It is clear from that case, if we look at the reality, that what was really happening is a person's prior conviction for various offences was being used as means to give him or her a larger or more severe sentence for a particular case that was before the court when they were being convicted. It meant that, in a way, a person's past was being used to inflict an additional punishment on the present. While we see that situation certainly coming into play with regard to bail applications and things like that, it is something we have to reflect upon.
That is not to say there should not be some measure to bring that into consideration in situations where people have a history of particularly extreme violent offences. What the Supreme Court and Mr. Justice Peter Charleton said, however, is that this should be up to the judge in each individual case. It must be looked at on an individual business. It cannot be done on a general scheme, as was done in many varied aspects of pieces of law that have to be amended on foot of all this.
The truth is that many people in communities across the length and breadth of the country are suffering hugely because of issues of drug abuse and the crimes around that. Drug gangs are putting huge pressure on communities with intimidation and all sorts of terrible things are happening.
Many people in ordinary communities sometimes feel very aggrieved when they see people who they know are doing terrible things in their community. They are worried about the light sentences these people receive and how they do not seem to be dealt with effectively or efficiently by the judicial system on one hand, but also that the Garda does not seem to have the resources to deal with it.
That comes into focus when we look at all this. We have to really consider who the victims are in all these cases. The victims are thousands of people in communities across the entire country, but particularly in what we would call the black spots where we have particular problems in urban areas. Often, these problems are most magnified. Inner city Dublin is probably a case and an example, as are parts of Limerick and Cork and also other cities around the country. As we know, Dundalk has recently been one of the focal points of much of this.
The communities who live in these areas tell us that they live in fear and feel that the Garda and the authorities are not in control. That is the first job of work that must be done to resolve these situations. Control needs to be taken back. Every effort needs to be made in those particular areas to put resources in to ensure that control can be taken back and then to break the cycle of criminal activity within these communities.
The most important thing to do, however, is to try to work on measures to have that control taken away from the criminal gangs and put back into the hands of the authorities, and particularly, into the hands of the Garda Síochána. In reality, members of the Garda are the only ones who can do this in these situations. I commend the work they have done in many places around the country and in many of these areas where they have a very tough job facing down these violent criminal gangs.
The reality is also that when people in these communities report things to the Garda or seek assistance, such assistance comes but it can often be late. People can often find it frustrating. I spoke to a woman recently who told me about contacting her local Garda station. She was told there was no car available to go out to a very serious incident that was happening on her road.
That issue would be echoed by many people in communities across the country. The basic resources the Garda need to deal with these problems are not in place. There needs to be a huge effort to ensure we can gain back control in these communities. To regain the confidence of the people in these communities, we will have to put the resources in place. That will require much more community policing.
There is this notion among the senior ranks of the Garda Síochána that every garda is a community garda. The truth is that this is not the experience of many people. There is an awful lot of specialisation within An Garda Síochána with dedicated units for various action, which are needed. The emphasis on the community garda, however, who is known in the area, with whom people will work, have a relationship and trust, is needed. The community garda to whom people can tell things in confidence has been taken away from many communities. That needs to be restored as an absolute priority.
For the many young people who get caught up in these gangs, it is almost a life sentence in itself. Once they get a toe in the water, it is like quicksand. They are sucked in and there is no coming back. For many young people and their families, we must find a way of breaking this tragedy.
I recently watched the excellent film, "Michael Inside" which I am sure the Minister saw, which is about a young man in inner city Dublin who gets caught up in a drug gang. He is asked to keep some drugs in his house but it is raided by the Garda drugs squad and he gets a short term in prison. He is sucked into that gang mentality of being on one side or the other. With the best of intentions, his grandfather who he lives with tries to help him out. However, there is no way out of it. Thugs intimidate him and push him into a certain situation.
Speaking to people on the ground, they tell me that what is in that drama is very real to the lives of many people living in these communities. The film tells a story about the failure of services and the authorities to be able to break that cycle, to move in at the right time to ensure that the young man in questioned is not forced into a gang. The end of the film is tragic with the young man in prison watching another prisoner smoking heroin. Obviously, the message of the tale is that this is the direction in which the young man will end up.
Many of these young people can be saved. The situation can be reversed and it is not hopeless. This is the message that the Government and the authorities need to bring to these communities. Many communities have thrown their hands up in the air, considering it all to be hopeless and over. We cannot allow that to be the narrative. The narrative must be a positive one. We must believe that we can move this into a different place, that we can defeat these violent drug gangs and everything they do. We must believe we can reverse the misery, as well as the lifestyle of horror and terror that they bring to communities. We can bring hope back. However, we need to make sure the resources are put in place to do that.
The first thing we must do is get control back of these communities. That is an action that can only be taken by the Garda. We must ensure we put enough community gardaí on the streets in these communities. Tough action must also be taken by the Garda to deal with the heroin houses or the one or two places in an estate where we know people deal drugs.
The local authorities have a role to play as well. They are slow to evict people from local authority housing who they know are involved in criminal activities. The local authorities claim they do not want to do that because they will get into a litigation process which will cost them a lot of money which they cannot afford to spend. The Minister of State needs to look at how we can have co-operation between the Department of Justice and local authorities to ensure they can move it to a different place.
The essence of this Bill is about sentencing. It brings a focus on what we are sentencing for. We are talking about violent crime and misery in communities. We need to do everything we can to defeat these drug gangs. While all Members are united in trying to do that, unfortunately, the actions do not move beyond here. We need to ensure that happens.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on this important legislation.
It is timely that legislation has been brought forward to implement the recommendations of the Supreme Court in the case of Wayne Ellis v. the Minister for Justice. As Deputy Martin Kenny outlined, this is only part of the wider picture. It all depends on the mechanisms by which legislation is enforced. The personnel involved in this are our gardaí who are on the front line. As Deputy Martin Kenny said, it is all very well for us to talk about the need for supports in communities, as well as the need for us to tackle drug-related and gang-related crime, the scourge of communities the length and breadth of this State. My community in north County Dublin is no different and is not immune from this.
The best way to tackle this scourge is by resourcing community gardaí and not pretending that every garda is a community one. Not every garda can be a community garda. A community garda is the one who is on the ground, picking up those little bits of intelligence. The community garda is the one talking to the kids from an early age and who knows the communities. It seems sometimes that there is not enough value placed on that work by An Garda Síochána. It is essential, however. Legislation can only ever be a small part of the jigsaw. The men and women who enforce it are the biggest and most important part.
The verdict of the Supreme Court held that, while the Oireachtas can impose mandatory penalties for offences, it can only do so where those penalties apply to all persons equally. Specifically, the Oireachtas cannot create a mandatory penalty which only applies to a particular class of persons, such as a person who has previously committed a particular offence or offences.
Rectifying these matters is necessary and reinforces the importance of the independence of our judicial system. Last week, the Supreme Court made an extremely important ruling on the Workplace Relations Commission. This decision of the court needs to be legislated for as a matter of urgency. The ruling by the Supreme Court in the case of Tomasz Zalewski and the Workplace Relations Commission outlined several issues relating to the Workplace Relations Act 2015 and the Unfair Dismissals Act 1977, which are inconsistent with the Constitution. While the Supreme Court rejected the challenge to the Workplace Relations Commission, finding that it was not offensive to the Constitution, the seven-judge panel did, however, rule that aspects of certain legislation are inconsistent with the Constitution. It is imperative that changes are made to the referenced legislation as soon as possible to ensure that its operation is brought in line with the Constitution.
It is for that reason that I have engaged with the Minister of State with responsibility for employment, Deputy English. I have shared with him legislation I have drafted which will address these issues, bringing both the Workplace Relations Act 2015 and the Unfair Dismissals Act 1977 in line with the Constitution. Following the ruling of the Supreme Court, I have sought to address the issues such as the ban on public hearings before the Workplace Relations Commission, the absence of a requirement to give evidence on oath, as well as the lack of a specific reference in the legislation to a right to cross-examine anyone giving evidence, among others, by way of the Workplace Relations (Amendment) Bill 2021.
There is no doubt that rectifying these issues is an area where the Opposition and the Government agree and that solutions be enacted as soon as possible. I met with the Minister of State, Deputy English, on Tuesday morning and had a positive engagement with him. It is important that legislation, whether it is mine or the Government's, is enacted to transpose the decision of the Supreme Court into law.
Leafing through this Bill before us reinforces the need to keep a keen eye on our legislation. It is important not to lose sight of the opportunities we have as legislators to update Bills in order to cut issues off at the pass to ensure they do not have to be escalated to the Supreme Court. Will the Minister of State consider the notion of putting in a review clause to deal with anomalies quickly? While there are review clauses in some legislation, they tend just to be box-ticking exercises.
I wish to raise a small issue but one which has affected us all at some stage as we go about our work, namely, the lack of consolidated Acts online.
The Law Reform Commission has many consolidated Acts online but there are also many which are missing. There would be great benefit in supporting the commission to get as many consolidated Acts as possible published online. The latter would help all of us so I ask the Minister of State to take that suggestion on board.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill, the purpose of which is to rectify constitutional issues in legislation identified by the Supreme Court following a case in 2019. There are a number of Acts which this Bill will affect. The Minister of State has mentioned them, as have my colleagues.
It is welcome that this issue is being dealt with but we need to go further. We need to think of the human rights of victims of crime and we need to do more on crime prevention. Garda visibility is a key part of crime prevention and detection. We need to invest in our justice system. Sinn Féin in government will recruit 800 Garda members per annum to gradually increase the strength of the force above 16,000. We have one of the lowest policing ratios in Europe and this must change. We will review the need for new Garda stations in areas that are under siege. We must also ensure that the Garda stations we have are fit for purpose and that gardaí are available when needed. The Minister of State will have heard Teachta Martin Kenny talking about sGarda car. The same thing has happened in my area as well, on many occasions. Sinn Féin in government will speed up civilianisation by recruiting 550 Garda staff per annum. This will free gardaí from office work which they really should not be doing and where it is not essential for it to be carried out by sworn members. Gardaí should really be out on patrol on the streets instead of in offices doing this work.
We also have the farcical situation whereby up to 50% of all front-line gardaí do not have the adequate training and clearance to pursue cars at high speed, according to the Garda Representative Association. This is a significant problem given that many stations cover vast rural areas and if gardaí cannot pursue criminals at speed, it seriously hampers their ability to tackle crime. We need to form rural crime task forces in all rural Garda divisions. Sinn Féin in government will implement the Commission on the Future of Policing recommendations on technology and provide gardaí with the tools to tackle crime in rural and remote areas. Years of neglect and indifference to rural Ireland must stop, and stop now.
We need to reform joint policing committees to give them more powers and give local communities more influence on policing. We also need more community wardens for county councils to assist with planning safer communities. Sinn Féin in government will bring community gardaí back up to 2010 levels and put in place restorative justice schemes complementary to, and not as a substitute for, civic policing.
Finally, I want to address the epidemic of illegal dumping that is plaguing rural Ireland. We must resolve issues around CCTV use and work together to ensure communities can be protected from this blight on our landscape.
I wish to signal the Labour Party's support for this short but important item of legislation. The Supreme Court delivered its judgment in Ellis v. the Minister for Justice on 15 May 2019. According to the Supreme Court:
[The case raised an] important and difficult question of the constitutional boundary between the respective roles of the Oireachtas and the Courts in deciding what is the appropriate sentence to be served by a person convicted of an offence.
As the Minister of State indicated, the purpose of the Bill is to deal with all other legislation that suffers from the defect identified in the Ellis case. That case concerned a firearms offence for which the Oireachtas had prescribed a mandatory minimum sentence of five years, but only for a second or subsequent offence. The court outlined principles relevant to the separation of powers and the respective roles of the Oireachtas and the courts in determining the sentence to be imposed on a person convicted. Both the Oireachtas, as part of the lawmaking function, and the courts, as part of the administration of justice, have a role in determining a sentence. However, there is a clear distinction between the prescription of a penalty, fixed or otherwise, and the selection of a penalty for a particular case.
It is constitutionally permissible for the Oireachtas to provide in legislation that a specified penalty will apply on the commission of a specified identified defence that all persons convicted of a particular offence, such as murder, shall be subject to the same fixed prescribed penalty. That is not in breach of the separation of powers, although it would be subject to separate constitutional constraints which require a rational relationship between the penalty and the gravity of the offence - it would not, for example, be open to the Oireachtas to prescribe an outlandish penalty for a relatively minor offence. Otherwise, however, the selection of the punishment to be imposed on a particular person convicted of a particular offence forms part of the administration of justice role which, under the Constitution, is exclusively a matter for judges sitting in our national courts. The convicted person has a constitutional right to receive a sentence appropriate to his or her degree of guilt and to his or her relevant personal circumstances. The legislation in this case has sought to provide a fixed or a minimum mandatory sentence which did not apply to all persons convicted of that offence but only to that limited class of offenders determined by reference to one characteristic of the offender, namely, that an individual offender had prior convictions. Prior convictions always form part of the consideration of the factors by a sentencing judge in reaching what he or she determines to be the appropriate sentence.
The question to be determined here was whether it was permissible for the Oireachtas to legislate for a mandatory minimum penalty which is not universally applied to all persons convicted of that particular offence. The penalty applied only to a limited class of persons who committed the offence and the class was determined by reference to only one of the potential relevant circumstances in which the offence was committed only one of the characteristics of the offender would be taken into account in determining the sentence. The court, looking at that, held that the Oireachtas had impermissibly crossed the dividing line in that constitutional separation of powers between the prescription of a general sentence for an offence and the selection of the appropriate sentence in each individual case. This, therefore, has wider implications than simply the case at hand and that is why a number of statutes, all listed by the Minister of State and referenced by some of my colleagues, are being amended.
It raises also the broader issues I have dealt with in contributions in this House over the years, including the broader issue of the appropriateness of mandatory sentences is in any event. The classic arguments for mandatory sentences are first that there is clarity, so that somebody who is about to commit an offence understands there is a very serious penalty prescribed in law; for example, anybody contemplating murder knows there is a mandatory life sentence if he or she is convicted of it. The second argument concerns consistency. It is important that a sentence is not determined by the individual judge or the geographical location and that there is clarity in the context of sentences. The third argument is obviously what is in the mind of Members of the Oireachtas in determining criminal sanctions, namely, the effect of a deterrent. Thus, clarity, consistency and acting as a deterrent are the normal arguments put forward for mandatory sentences. However, there is an argument against, namely, that every case is different and every set of circumstances is unique. As we listen in more and more to court cases or read about them in our national newspapers we understand the various differences involved in sometimes very serious criminal activity.
Flexibility must be given to professional and competent judges to form their decisions on what is the appropriate sentence, given all the circumstances that cannot be in the minds of legislators and that apply or occur in any individual case.
The advent of the Judicial Council and the availability of advices from their peers on sentencing lessens the need for mandatory sentences. I am mindful of the experience in other jurisdictions. Often in times of heightened concern about relatively small numbers of offences, people are genuinely frightened, particularly elderly citizens in our communities. They feel particularly vulnerable to crime and reading about it, hearing about it on the radio or seeing it on the television genuinely frightens them. There is often a political response to that because politicians are summoned to public meetings, there are concerns that there is not enough strength in the law and quite often, as is our tool, legislators reach for stronger legislation.
If one looks at the experience in some jurisdictions, such as in the United States for example, sometimes that has resulted in disastrous consequences. If one looks at the general incarceration rate in the United States, it is quite shocking. What is even more shocking is the three-strikes law if one commits three crimes. Whatever the third crime is, such as not paying alimony or a road traffic offence for example, if it is an indictable offence one faces mandatory life imprisonment in some states in the United States. That falls disproportionately on some sectors of the community, such as the poor, and the United States is also racially unbalanced. In five US states, including the state of Minnesota, which has been in sharp focus in recent times, black males are incarcerated at a rate of 10:1 in comparison with white males. A black man has ten times the prospect of being incarcerated as a white man in five US states. In the state of Oklahoma, one in 15 black adult males is in prison. In 11 states, one in 20 black adult males is in prison. In 2010 in the United States, black people made up 13% of the population and 40% of those who were in jail.
That brings us to the broader issue of politics and crime. Fear of crime is much more prevalent than people's experience of crime. We have, in relative terms, a low rate of crime in this country thank God. That does not mean many in our communities are not in dreadful fear of their personal safety or the safety of their families or children. Fear of crime is a hugely debilitating and life-limiting issue that we as politicians need to address. Politicians rightly respond to the concerns of our electorate and mandatory sentencing is often the solution or remedy that is put forward at public meetings and offered by us in the Oireachtas.
I am glad we have a Judiciary that is not elected, whose members are appointed professionally and who cannot be removed except for extraordinary and exceptional matters. In fact, we have never impeached a judge since the Constitution was enacted in this State. Judges are not subject to external pressures in the administration of justice. That is an extraordinarily important bulwark for us and a great safety for our people. As an adjunct to that statement, it is important that the Judiciary are plugged into the reality of life for many of our citizens and communities, particularly vulnerable communities which some colleagues have described earlier and where there is a lot of criminality. Even low level criminality is extraordinarily debilitating. If people cannot walk out their doors, across their streets or across their estates without feeling intimidated, being followed or potentially being stalked, that is a problem.
I am in agreement with the suggestion put forward and we have talked about this many times. The solution is not mandatory sentencing or ever more years in prison being prescribed, which often simply professionalises amateur criminals. The solution is a reconnection between policing and communities. I have been talking about these matters since I first put forward legislative proposals the bones of 20 years ago to establish the Policing Authority based on the model of the Northern Ireland Policing Board. I went and spoke to the chairman of the Northern Ireland Policing Board, and the deputy chairperson, who I invited to Dublin to speak to us too. When the Labour Party was in government we eventually got around to enacting the Policing Authority.
We need to safeguard the principles that underscored the establishment of An Garda Síochána in the 1920s, that there would be unarmed community policing. Even the name An Garda Síochána signifies that its members are the guardians of the peace. It is not there to enforce but to be the people's guardians. That means community policing in a real sense. I welcome the inclusion in the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland report of community policing as an integral and essential part of policing. We must have members of An Garda Síochána in every community who are linked into the community with a knowledge of who is who and what is what. If there are difficulties, members of the Garda must be able to go and talk to individuals and be visible, and not simply breeze through in a police car. They must be of the community so that people know that Garda John or Garda Máire is the local community garda and that if there is a problem they can talk to him or her about it and a positive response will be made about it.
These changes are envisaged and I know that yesterday the Government approved the new transformation envisaged by the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland. I do not know if the Minister without portfolio, Deputy McEntee, will wait until she is back in the House to present that legislation because it will take some time to tease out. I am strongly in favour of the vast bulk of it. I have met the chair of the review group to discuss it with her and I have also discussed it with dissenting members who had a minority report, as the Minister of State will know, on one aspect of it in particular, which causes me concern. I was determined in recent years, particularly during our time in government when we were bringing in the Policing Authority, to have the appointment of senior Garda officers removed from the domain of the Garda itself and be done independently. I confess that I have not read the legislation because it was only published yesterday but I look forward to reading and debating it. I would be concerned if we reverted to an in-house appointment system. One of the great changes brought about by the Policing Authority was an independent system of appointing senior gardaí.
I am very anxious that the reformed Policing Authority incorporating the inspectorate would have that role and I will debate this with the Minister.
A critical part of all of this, and the hallmark of policing, will be an integrated community policing model, which exists in many countries. I happened to visit policing systems in Japan, where every community has a little hut at the end of the street where there is a local police officer whom people know and consult and speak to about things. That police officer is able to watch everything from bad traffic management to littering. It is these small things that debilitate communities. There could be an issue with the quality of the environment in a community because of people being careless with litter or driving motorbikes or whatever else carelessly. Anchoring policing in the community can transform this to the good. Sometimes we clamour about the location of a Garda station but that is no good if we do not have people. I do not want gardaí in stations, I want them visible in communities, walking around and talking to people knowing the communities they serve. I want them to be able to receive intelligence and act intelligently on intelligence, not with a heavy hand but with knowledge of their communities and knowing what to do. I am hopeful that the review of policing being carried out will result in this.
The legislation before us is with regard to the decision of the Supreme Court on ensuring each case is taken on its own merits and that the final determination of a sentence is the proper role and function of an appointed judge, hopefully acting in a much more collegiate fashion under the new systems we have put in place for judges to speak about sentencing, and having more consistency and more collegiality on these matters. In the meanwhile, we certainly need to continue to amend the law and I will wholeheartedly support the Bill. I look forward to Committee Stage when we might tease out one or two of the points I have touched upon.
I wish the Minister of State, Deputy Browne, well in his expanded role over the coming months and I acknowledge the wonderful work the Government did for the Minister, Deputy McEntee, and I wish her and her husband well. It is wonderful to see the Government is making progress on making being in politics more family friendly, from being in the Oireachtas right up to being a member of government.
I welcome the Bill, which addresses the constitutional issues that emerged in the Supreme Court judgment in the Wayne Ellis case in 2019. It will ensure that the checks and balances between the courts and the Parliament are maintained. A robust criminal justice system is essential for protecting our communities. We need to examine properly the ability to role out the use of community CCTV surveillance systems that protect communities but do not invade people's privacy. This has been an enormous issue in many towns and villages throughout the country and legislation such as this needs to be expanded further to try to help communities with regard to local authorities and the data privacy aspects that have caused consternation in many Garda divisions and with local authorities over who has responsibility. I ask the Minister of State to continue to do the work the Government is doing to solve this particular issue. It will be a huge improvement for local gardaí.
When discussing this legislation it is important to acknowledge the role that An Garda Síochána has played in recent months. It has been an exceptionally challenging time for policing in Ireland. Earlier, I spoke about the many new challenges that social media has brought to policing in the country for members of An Garda Síochána. Generally the work they have done in recent months has gone unacknowledged in many quarters and as a Deputy I would like to say that it is exceptionally important that they receive the recognition they deserve given the unprecedented level of danger they are in from Covid-19.
With regard to the drive to reduce the incidence of crime, anti-social behaviour, public disorder, vandalism and the general fear of crime, from my discussions with An Garda Síochána it is in favour of CCTV systems as an aid to policing in our communities. This recognises the national demand from community and business groups for CCTV systems in their respective towns and cities. While the use of CCTV by a police service can have great merit, its use can have a direct impact on the human rights of individuals. Therefore, we need to think carefully about how we ensure there is transparency in such systems so communities throughout the country are aware of the implications of the implementation of such a system.
Deputy Howlin spoke about the United Kingdom and the efforts being made there to improve community policing. The safer streets fund of £45 million includes planned measures for CCTV and is a very interesting initiative. It is something I would like to see us do here to improve public places, such as our parks, to ensure they are safe and to reduce the levels of crime and antisocial behaviour as a method of improving safety in our communities.
The move by the UK to appoint a surveillance camera commissioner is also very wise to try to help with similar administrative and legislative issues to those facing our local authorities and An Garda Síochána on a local basis. It is absolutely crazy when we stop and think about the fact we have installed multi-million euro CCTV systems in Garda barracks throughout the country and they cannot record. People are getting away with crimes who otherwise would easily be convicted because the gardaí could collect data from the footage. Even if it were deleted at the end of each day it could be kept on file in the event that it could be of some use in a criminal investigation, whether with regard to small levels of crime or theft or more severe cases. There is a lot of merit to putting in place these systems. I have to acknowledge this.
This was discussed very often when I was a member of Cork County Council and there seem to be very little hope of addressing it. I spoke to the Minister, Deputy McEntee, before she took leave and she told me the Department is trying its best to address this. I ask the Minister of State to keep his foot on the pedal in the coming months on this issue. Local authorities throughout the country have millions of euro invested in these systems for local gardaí but my understanding is that they are not being put to full use. They could be of enormous benefit to members of An Garda Síochána.
The work An Garda Síochána has done in recent months has been exceptional. It has been very challenging for them and they have dealt with protests and other situations where their health has been put at serious risk. As a parliamentarian and member of Dáil Éireann I acknowledge this and thank them for this work. I say to the Minister of State go n-éirí an t-ádh leat and I wish him well in the coming months.
We have already stated we will support the Bill. It is a technical Bill that is absolutely necessary from the point of view of dealing with constitutional issues. Deputy Howlin spoke earlier about mandatory sentencing, which people sometimes believe is a panacea.
I will deal with interventions that are necessary in our communities. This is nothing new as I have raised these issues previously with the Minister. I welcome what the Government has been saying on certain issues. I welcome the fact there are projects that attempt to stop young people becoming engaged in crime and involving themselves in gangs and try to remove them from it. I welcome the idea of community safety forums and I hope they will be given sufficient powers to replace joint policing committees, hopefully with more teeth and involving more agencies. This is the whole-of-government or multi-agency response we have all called for. We need to see this. I also welcome the moves on the youth justice strategy. These measures will only work if the resources are put in place and we need to audit the pilot projects to see they are working and to learn from them. We then need to operate them across the board because we are dealing with these issues everywhere.
I welcome the fact the Government is looking at the idea of a community safety innovation fund, which is similar to the legislation Deputy Ward and I have tabled on putting back into communities the money taken by CAB and the Garda from criminal organisations.
That money needs to go back into those communities, particularly working-class communities, that have been ravaged by the drugs pandemic with we are dealing. We need that to happen as soon as possible. It is as simple as that. It is natural justice. It is not a panacea for everything.
I have stated before and will state again that we need to have a citizens' assembly deal with the wider issue of drugs. Let us look at best practice. I accept that policing alone will not deal with this. I represent Dundalk. Many across society are impacted by drugs and by drug debt intimidation, but in working-class communities it is particularly acute and we need to deal with criminal gangs.
I agree with what has been said about the need for increasing our capacity for community policing. We all know the worth of a good juvenile liaison officer. We need to ensure that they are given all the tools and capacity to be able to deal with this. We know that we need to have interventions at an early stage in order that we can avoid people even getting into this criminal sphere but we need to see it as soon as possible and we need all the necessary resources.
I welcome this legislation. The Social Democrats will be supporting it.
In 2007, the then Minister, Senator McDowell, introduced the Criminal Justice Bill to the Dáil. The Bill was explicitly put forward to, in the then Minister's words, "send a clear and unambiguous message" to organised criminal gangs. How effective these methods would actually be were questioned at the time, as was the Government's decision to impose a guillotine to fast-track the Bill through both Houses over a period of a few weeks before a general election. There was not adequate time for the Bill to be debated, or for legal and human rights groups to examine the measures. In particular, the then Irish Human Rights Commission did not have time to look at the Bill, as it was empowered to do by law. This was yet another example of rushed and reactive legislation. We need to learn from these mistakes and to properly engage with a process. Pre-legislative scrutiny has been introduced since 2007 and when it is well done, it really adds to the legislation. Understandably, the past year has been fairly difficult in that regard.
The criminal justice system is the cornerstone of our democracy. Changes to it need to be well drafted and well considered and we need to bring in opposing voices as well. If there is an area of legislation that should not be subject to guillotine it is criminal justice. The consequences of inadequate scrutiny of legislation are obvious. They are certainly obvious with regard to this legislation and what will transpire in respect of reviewing sentences.
We are here today due to the Supreme Court ruling which concluded that mandatory minimum sentences for second or subsequent offences are unconstitutional. In her judgment, Ms Justice Finlay Geoghegan stated that the Oireachtas impermissibly crossed the divide in the constitutional separation of powers and sought to determine the minimum penalty which must be imposed by a court, not on all convicted of an offence but on that limited group of people who had committed an offence for a second or subsequent time.
When we see policies such as this in relation to sentences imposed on individuals who have committed a previous offence, the obvious example which comes to mind is America's three-strike rule. There was abundant evidence regarding the disastrous effects of this type of legislation in 2007, when this legislation was enacted. The negative effects of the three-strike rule was even referenced by the then Minister. It was not referenced as a negative but it was certainly referenced by the then Minister in bringing the legislation forward.
The introduction of mandatory minimum sentencing in the US contributed to the most dramatic period of prison expansion ever recorded, where the national prison population grew from approximately 300,000 in the early 1970s to approximately 2.3 million people today, disproportionately impacting in particular the black and Hispanic communities. America has 5% of the world's population but 25% of the prison population. One in seven American men will have been in prison. It may well be for short durations but that is quite an extraordinary statistic.
The US has begun to turn away from mandatory minimum sentencing and yet we continued to walk down this well-worn track, despite the evidence pointing against it. There can be a general perception that judges and the justice system go easy on offenders and it is an opinion that is shared by many Members of this House. However, many trends suggest judges are becoming more punitive, certainly at least in terms of some types of crime. Figures published in The Irish Timesrecently show that people found in possession of large quantities of drugs are twice as likely to face jail time as they were ten years ago. The length of life sentences has been on an upward trend and the proportion of short sentences for minor crimes has increased by a third.
Our own expert groups have resisted for decades the policy of mandatory sentencing for decades. The Law Reform Commission, in its 1996 report on sentencing, recommended that minimum and mandatory sentencing be abolished and repeated this call in its report on mandatory sentencing in 2013. In its report, the commission recognised the emotional appeal of mandatory sentences. It certainly looks like an easy fix. It gives the impression that one is being tough on crime but, in fact, the impression is not enough. We need to look at the evidence of where the solution is.
Proponents of this policy generally believe that mandatory sentencing will make sentences more consistent and predictable and the arguments often portray a level of distrust in the Judiciary. It is thought that mandatory sentences might send a message to criminals showing that these acts will not be tolerated and so would deter crime. There is little evidence to support this view when one looks at the rates of crime. Mandatory minimums are an incredibly blunt legal instrument, applying the same sentence to all offenders who have committed the same crime. The potential for injustice is quite considerable.
Providing trial judges with discretion in sentencing would not necessarily mean that the person in front of the judge serves less prison time but it would mean that the trial judge could make an assessment of the appropriate length of time that the offender should serve based on all of the information available which, of course, would not be available to us when we are framing the legislation. In relation to the existing provisions in the Misuse of Drugs Act, for example, people who are engaged as drug mules are sometimes more vulnerable or maybe foolish people who face addiction themselves and may be found to be importing large quantities of illegal drugs on the direction of others, who may face a lesser charge or may not be brought to justice at all. That is not to say that there should not be a punishment for that.
There is also, frankly, little evidence that mandatory sentencing deters crime. In the US, where a large proportion of states have mandatory minimum sentencing, the crime rate has been little affected. It does not appear to translate in that respect.
It seems whenever any form of crime becomes a public controversy, the debate shifts back to mandatory minimums as a simple way of dealing with crime or presenting a solution. During the election campaign last year, the Minister of State, Deputy James Browne's party, Fianna Fáil, promised mandatory minimum sentencing for knife possession. It is not uncommon to hear statements that suggest these sentences are the only possible way we can tackle a particular crime.
The fact the policy was redundant was simply ignored. It sounded like it was the business but we all have to be very careful not to reinforce bias, particularly when something cannot be introduced because it is, for example, unconstitutional. Judges and members of the legal profession often go to great lengths in this country to circumvent mandatory minimum provisions and in some cases, they do so to avoid an injustice. Ironically, mandatory sentencing does not generally achieve consistency in sentencing but increases its arbitrariness, where judges attempt to avoid imposing an unjust sentence on an individual.
Section 15(a) of the Criminal Justice Act, 1999, introduced the offence of possession of drugs for sale or supply with a value of more than €13,000. The law set a minimum sentence of ten years in jail, although judges could impose lesser sentences in cases involving "exceptional" or "specific circumstances". In Ireland, Circuit Court judges generally do not impose the ten year minimum sentence in respect of drug trafficking and, indeed, have faced a lot of public criticism for this. Judges have interpreted this provision in a broad manner from the beginning. Co-operation with gardaí or a guilty plea may be deemed "exceptional" circumstances and so the majority who are convicted do not receive the minimum sentence, even though it is laid down in law. Co-operation with An Garda Síochána can lead to people who are higher up the criminal food chain being identified and brought to justice, which is obviously of value in terms of making communities safer.
In 2013 the Law Reform Commission reported that the directors of the drugs trade had adapted to the new sentencing regime by using couriers they deemed to be expendable. This results in relatively low-level offenders being subject to harsher laws while the higher ups keep their hands clean. The law may be deficient in other ways and, in certain circumstances, could be even benefiting the criminals. We must be careful in what we do in the area of sentencing policy.
The effective response to crime has been always a matter of debate and this debate has been often cast as one between those who fully believe in punishment and those who want to see prison time completely cut and replaced with rehabilitative programmes. In actual fact, most people and in many cases, it comes down to discretion. The debate is more often about the right mix, which is what we should be trying to achieve.
Proactive policing can happen only where there is an appropriate number of law enforcement personnel and a fair distribution of Garda resources. Adequate resources are also essential if we are to provide community policing which should be the cornerstone of the Garda response. I am pleased to see this is referenced in the publication launched yesterday. I have done an analysis of the statistics on Garda resources and will shortly publish a paper on same. My analysis shows that areas of growing population are always playing catch up in the context of Garda numbers. County Meath, for example, which is the Minister for Justice's own constituency, has the lowest ratio of gardaí to population in the country, followed by Kildare. The Minister of State's constituency also features prominently, as north Wexford has experienced a rapid rise in population in recent years. What tends to happen is that Garda resources lag behind population rises and we get policing that is reactive rather than proactive. Community policing is proactive policing but it cannot be done properly with inadequate resources. I am not saying that is the only metric that should be used but it is not something that should be dismissed either. Issues such as rates of crime or specific outbreaks of criminal activity would be also key determinants in the context of allocating resources.
The Scandinavian model emphasises rehabilitation, with treatment and support aimed at helping the offender to become a law abiding member of society. Norway moved its focus from punishment to rehabilitation 20 years ago. This was followed by a large reduction in re-offending rates, which is what we should try to achieve here because such reductions make people feel safer. Compared to a re-offending rate of around 50% within a year in the UK, Norway’s rate is around . This is clear evidence of the value of this approach.
Views on crime and punishment differ but we can all agree that we care about criminal acts because they cause harm and have particularly bad effects in some communities. Very often the perception is different to the reality in terms of the actual crime rate but if people feel afraid, we must take that seriously and address it. Advocating for an approach to crime which reduces harm should be a united goal across the political spectrum. There is evidence that rehabilitation reduces crime and is cost effective. The Law Reform Commission and the Irish Penal Reform Trust have repeatedly called for an end to mandatory minimum sentencing, yet successive Governments have been slow to act. Our future approach should not be just based on the fact that mandatory minimum sentencing has been found to be unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, which is pretty significant in itself, but based on evidence.
Very often when one speaks about ending mandatory minimum sentencing, one is perceived to be soft on crime. We need to make sure we do not reinforce this perception. At the same time, we have a responsibility to examine the evidence regarding what works rather than just presenting apparently simple solutions. The rehabilitative approach has been played out in other countries and thankfully we have seen countries like the USA moving slowly in a different direction, which is necessary. We must look at the evidence here. We want to do more good than harm and mandatory minimum sentences have not been good policy.
I completely acknowledge that there is a significant problem with drugs and organised crime in this country and not adequately resourced policing results in a failure to get to grips with such problems. We saw this in Limerick where a significant problem was allowed to emerge. That county and city ended up being labelled, with international publications describing that city in disgraceful terms quite recently. Communities can be blighted in the long term when proactive policing is not practised. We end up trying to resolve problems rather than trying to prevent them from occurring in the first place. The latter is what proactive policing and good policy allows us to do.
I am glad to have the opportunity to speak on this legislation. I accept that the Bill is before the House on constitutional grounds. Every so often we must review the efficacy of legislation and the need for it. There was a need for legislation in this area to sharply bring home to those involved in criminality that they could not get away with it indefinitely. An attempt was being made at the time to shock the criminal world into believing that there would be serious consequences for their actions and that they would pay. Unfortunately, as Deputy Catherine Murphy outlined, the criminal world seized the opportunity to use mules to do their dirty work, to do the carrying and delivery. The mules were inevitably caught and given maximum sentences while the real carriers took a different, well charted route and got clean away.
That was an instance of a serious problem which had to be dealt with. One way of dealing with it is to change the law in respect of it. However, there is also a danger of losing all the ways and means of dealing with crime in its modern shape and form. We need to recognise that as time goes by, the criminal world is modernising its activities, changing the rules insofar as it is concerned and finding new ways and means of circumnavigating the system with a view to making crime pay.
The question of bail and the number of crimes committed by people while on bail was very much an issue in the past. It still remains so, albeit not to the same extent. Not only were people on bail for committing more than one crime, they were subsequently bailed again allowing them to commit more crime. It was really laughable to see what happened. The Garda was bringing people in, prosecuting them and bringing them to court, but before sentencing they were let out on bail during which they made good value of that time to reoffend. As a result, in some cases up to 20 or 30 offences took place while the person accused in the first instance was on bail. That was unacceptable and could not go on. The longer that kind of thing went on, the worse the situation got.
Some of us carried on a campaign to highlight that particular issue and, thankfully, it was addressed. It may need to be addressed further and great caution needs to be taken to ensure there is ongoing monitoring of the efficacy of the legislation in dealing with that issue. There should be no situation whereby somebody can obtain bail in respect of a multiplicity of crimes and at the same time be free. That cannot add up. It brings the law into disrepute. It is certainly no comfort to the forces of law and order if this kind of thing is allowed to happen and people appear to get away with it.
We should also recognise the important role of crime prevention. We need to look at that to a greater extent. One or two things come to mind very quickly. One is bad-quality housing and the concentration of huge numbers of people in what are, effectively, ghettoes. We do not have many in the country but we have a few and they are bad environments. We cannot expect people to behave in a normal way if they live in abnormal conditions and are treated accordingly. We need to look at our social and housing laws to try to ensure that people have a reasonable quality of life in the houses in which they live. I am conscious of the fact that we have a housing crisis. I have spoken about it, like everybody else, many times in this House. We have not resolved it yet; various factors have affected that. The fact of the matter is that we will need to resolve that particular issue if we are going to give people an even chance.
I raised quite a number of Dáil questions on the issue of rehabilitation over the years. I was not always happy about the degree to which the issues were resolved. First-time offenders should get the first opportunity at re-education within the prison system with a view to education and training. Every possible means should be found to enable them to have pride in what they could do in a crime-free environment and to be able to contribute to their well-being, that of their families and, as a result, that of society. Much more needs to be done. I have also found out over the years that within the prison system there are some people who are habitual, long-term offenders who avail of all the services available within the Prison Service with no intention of ever changing their habits. They are doing it to have a better quality of life while they are in prison. We need to look at those services, see how effective they are and how we proceed.
My final point goes back to minimum sentencing and the extent to which the courts have discretion, rightly so, in determining the sentences they hand down. It should not automatically follow that the easiest possible sentence is administered in certain areas. For instance, we have seen many situations in the past where somebody who did not pay his or her television licence did prison time, whereas somebody who struck an elderly person over the head with a blunt instrument, leaving him or her in hospital, sometimes got the Probation Act. These kinds of things should not happen. In order to ensure that the law is respected, we must have the law in such a way that it protects the vulnerable in society and society as a whole. At the same time, the law must be constitutionally sound. Those are just a few of the things I wanted to say. I could say much more but I would need much more time.
In 2020, there were 36 community gardaí in Cork, which is nine fewer than the previous April. In recent weeks a number of communities in my constituency of Cork North-Central have come under attack. People, children, families and cars have been violently attacked, resulting in some families walking out, locking the doors of their homes and leaving because they felt so intimidated and fearful.
I am asking the Minister of State what is being done to put gardaí on the ground. The only way to deter criminals, gangs and anti-social behaviour is for gardaí who know everyone to be seen in place, walking and cycling around communities. I am looking for more gardaí but also for local authorities and landlords to tackle these criminals by not letting them live in communities, trying to destroy them. We need CCTV cameras in hotspot areas. We also need much more to be done in order that people can feel safe when they walk, go for a jog or go to their local shop.
Social media needs to be held to account because some attacks are being posted on it. It helps encourage these gangs to be more brazen. As youth services are shut, many people, especially young people who have never been in trouble before, are now getting into trouble and engaging in anti-social behaviour because of the lockdown of the past 12 months. They do not have somewhere to go to make friends. My fear is that we will lose more and more young people to these gangs and to criminality. We need more members of the Garda and more help for these young people. The one thing we know is that every summer there is an increase in attacks and involvement in gangs; it just goes with the time of year. I am asking the Minister of State what is being done now to put a plan in place to stop this from getting out of hand. People have contacted me from areas such as The Glen, Farranree, Gurranabraher and other areas in my constituency. People are desperate and they feel afraid. These are great communities of hardworking people who go to school and college. They have built great community and GAA groups and sporting organisations. We need to support them. We need to let people know there is support there for them.
For years, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael cut services to youth funding resources and the Garda. I am asking for that funding to be put back. People should feel safe in their communities. I am asking the Minister of State what he will do now to put a plan in place for this summer to ensure resources are there.
I am sharing time with Deputy Tóibín. I welcome the opportunity to take part in today's debate on an extremely important Bill. The Ellis decision raised a number of very important issues over what is an appropriate approach to sentences in certain cases, which in turn has led to significant delays in processing such cases to conclusion.
I appreciate that the Bill is intended to remedy the faults in legislation that arose as a result of the Ellis case. There is no doubt that those on the Government side will highlight the many benefits of the amendments so there is no point in me going over them again. I would like to put on record my support for the Government in any actions that it may take to make the laws of this country stronger, more resilient and more of a deterrent to those who commit second and subsequent crimes. At present, there is simply not enough of a deterrent to stop those people who commit a crime regularly. How many times have you heard it said that it is always the same people's names appearing in the local newspapers in the courts reports? On some occasions, it is said that one could easily name the people appearing in court before their names appear in the papers. With this being the case, something is clearly wrong. We must get to grips with the legal system in this country and have a system in place that will create a situation where people will be afraid to commit an offence a second time.
There are always victims when crimes are committed. These victims are often overlooked. More must be done to support the victims of crime. One of the ways that we can support them is by making sure that those who commit the crime pay the price. Too often, those who commit the crimes get away scot-free. This is wrong. I acknowledge that this Bill will address this to a certain degree.
We can talk all we want in the House but the bottom line is that we must support the court system with robust and up-to-date legislation. We must also put in place real measures that support the victims of crime. These people are, in my opinion, the forgotten people of crime. They are the innocent victims of crime. They are left to pick up the pieces on many occasions.
In my constituency, Louth, we have been plagued by a drug feud involving two rival factions in Drogheda. Unfortunately, lives have been lost and destroyed, and families have been torn apart. Many families in Drogheda now live in fear as a direct result of the feud. The feud has been played out not only in the local media but also the national media. The dogs in the street know who is involved yet, at times, it seems that the gardaí are powerless to act. How was this allowed to continue for so long? This feud has spilled into neighbouring towns and villages, including my own town, Dundalk. It has ruined the lives of many and left many more living in fear. If the dogs in the street know who is involved and the media seem to know every detail, how is it okay that it took so long? Do the gardaí not have enough power? If this is the case, then as legislators, we must put in place legislation that ensures the authorities have the power to deal with this.
Drugs are destroying many lives and make many of those responsible for dealing rich. We must make sure that those who profit from the selling of drugs are brought to justice. Surely at this stage we have the resources to pinpoint exactly if someone is living beyond his or her means and examine why this is the case. In many instances, this will highlight whether earnings are illegal or not. In addition, we must make sure that robust legislation is in place that puts in place a real deterrent to those who would consider committing a crime more than once. In this respect, I feel that the Bill is a good start. It is not only a start. We must now work together to ensure that laws are put in place that create a situation where crime does not pay.
Unfortunately, in some situations, criminals are treated like celebrities in their local areas. This is not helped by the reporting of some media outlets, which no doubt contribute to making some of these people celebrities. I have a problem with some of the terms used to describe gang leaders. Surely the media have a duty to ensure that it does not make celebrities out of criminals? The media often glamourise the life of criminals, especially the drug barons. It would serve the media better if they were to highlight the misery of those victims and innocent families instead of making criminals into media stars.
Getting back to the Bill before us, I support it and any amendments which make it stronger and more robust. We should have an increasing scale of penalties for those who continuously commit crimes. I have an issue with sentences that run concurrently. How is that a deterrent to those criminals? Sentences for different crimes should not run concurrently. They should be added together to ensure that those convicted pay the proper price for their crimes. If they commit more crimes, the sentences should reflect this. Criminals who continue to commit crimes should have their sentences increased each time, not have their sentences run concurrently, and pay a proper price for their crimes.
I once more state my support for the Bill. We must not stop here. We must continue to examine the legislation in place and ensure that it is fit for purpose. There are too many occasions where criminals have got off on a technicality. This should never happen and when it does, we should address the legislation that has failed. These criminals often have access to vast sums of money and can employ the best legal brains who will try to find a loophole to allow their clients to get off. We must fight this. The way to fight it is by ensuring that we have strong, legally sound and robust legislation in place.
As I said previously, the trappings of crime are often wealth. Surely in this day and age, we have the technology, access to information and the resources to identify when people are living way beyond their means. We have seen many times before, both here and abroad, that the downfall of criminals has been when their financial affairs have been examined. I want to once more confirm my support for this Bill. I hope that this is only the start of hopefully further measures that will ensure that crime does not pay. Those who commit a crime are dissuaded from further criminal activities by more robust sentencing.
I want to raise the matter of the Border counties. In the four Border stations, we only have one sergeant. That is a disgrace. I have spoken with the Minister, Deputy McEntee, on numerous occasions about the situation in the Dundalk area. At present, there are ten vacancies for gardaí. There are seven for Dundalk, which is a big region where the gardaí are doing a fantastic job. There is one at Blackrock, one of the biggest rural areas in the region, one in Omeath and one in Hackballscross. It is important that gardaí are supervised. The experience of sergeants is needed. Having ten vacancies in one area makes no sense to me.
I ask the Minister of State to give me a commitment that he will talk to the Minister, Deputy Humphreys. I believe that the Minister, Deputy McEntee, will still be involved with the Cabinet. Coming from a Border area, with Brexit, smuggling and everything else, they have done a fantastic job. The least one can do there is ensure that the gardaí are well-resourced. Will the Minister of State please give me a commitment that he will look at the situation, and not leave it on the long finger? Many people really get fed up of the situation. I know one family that has been burgled three times. Believe it or not, it is the same person who comes back time and time again. It is important to address if somebody is caught a second time. Putting all the crimes together cannot work. If he is in custody and it is discovered that he committed two or three more crimes, they should be put aside separately, and instead of a criminal going to jail for one, two or three years, we have to deter and stop people from breaking into people's houses.
I know these people who are victims and their lives have changed. It is not nice for one's self, wife and children to be in bed and for someone to break into the property. They threaten the people and destroy the house, and everything that we work for. There is fear afterwards, especially among the children. I met a few children in the last months whose houses had been broken into. They cannot sleep. Everything comes back on to the victim. They get no support whatsoever from Government, which says "so what?" The big fear is that the people who the gardaí catch will go in to jail and, a few weeks later, be walking down the main street or wherever it might be, and who do they walk into? Consider the looks that they get and everything else.
Will the Minister of State help me out with getting ten sergeants and getting more gardaí on the street? While I was at the Joint Committee on Justice, people were talking about 4,000 civilians coming in and doing clerical work in Garda stations. What happened there? How many people are employed as clerical officers? There is no point to having people train in Templemore for six or 12 months and do all the training, and then be put into an office to do clerical work. If the Government is going to put civil servants behind the desks, do so. We need more footfall. I come from a Border area. I ask the Minister of State to please give a commitment of giving us the ten sergeants that we deserve.
I want to focus on the issue of sexual violence.
Figures I obtained recently show a shocking increase in the level of sexual violence in Ireland in recent years. While the figures were down marginally in 2020 because of Covid-19, between 2016 and 2019 there was a massive increase. The Central Statistics Office, CSO, recorded 2,520 sexual offences in 2016. That figure increased to 3,340 in 2019. There was a huge increase in the numbers of cases of rape, abuse of children under the age of 17 and sexual assaults. There must be a serious national conversation regarding the underlying reasons for this increase and how we can best respond.
This week also brought unbelievable information from the CSO in the context of the sexual assault figures it published. More than one in five, over 20%, of those who committed sexual assaults were boys under the age of 18. That is a startling and incredible figure. Even more startling than that is the fact that three in five victims of sexual assault, or 60%, were children. In this generation, children under the age of 18 are the most vulnerable in this State regarding this type of sexual crime.
It is an incredible situation, and an issue that the country is not dealing with. On the news, the CEO of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre said that one of the driving forces behind this increase in abuse by youths of youths is the amount of hardcore Internet pornography being consumed by individuals at a very young age. I have raised this issue several times and when I do the Government frets over it. Heads are shaken, but at the end of the conversation shoulders are shrugged. No party in this Dáil has introduced legislation to end the ability of children as young as ten years of age to access hardcore Internet pornography. That is except for one party, namely, Aontú. I have a Bill waiting to move to Second Stage. If passed, that legislation would make it illegal for international companies to make a profit out of selling hardcore pornography to children as young as ten years of age. I really encourage the Government to help to get the Bill through the Dáil. This is far too serious an issue for people to ignore.
I also wish to discuss sentencing, which is important when it comes to sexual violence. In 2019, a man was sentenced to a mere two and a half years in prison for the sexual assault of a 13-year-old girl. In 2015, another perpetrator was given a suspended sentence of a year for the repeated rape and sexual assault of his girlfriend while she was asleep over the course of 12 months. When the judge was handing down the sentence, he credited that perpetrator for confessing and allowing the case to be brought forward. In February, a former drug dealer was given a fully suspended sentence despite sexually assaulting a woman. In another case, a man was given the opportunity to be spared a criminal conviction for the sexual assault of two women if he gave a donation of €100 to the rape crisis centre. These sentences are disgracefully weak. They do not represent justice for the victims and they are definitely not a reason for future perpetrators to be afraid of the law. We must do much better by victims.
I also want to talk briefly about some of the criminal aspects introduced by the Government in respect of Covid-19. Covid-19 is obviously a real issue and it is a dangerous illness for certain cohorts, especially the elderly and those who are ill. The Government has done a poor job of providing protection in the context of the restrictions and laws which it has introduced in the past year. According to the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, IHREC, since March 2020 the Oireachtas has enacted four statutes and the Minister for Health has made 67 sets of regulations in response to Covid-19. These include 40 weeks of bans on religious services, 410 days of wet pubs being closed and more than 215 days of workplace closures. This adds up to the longest and most severe lockdown in Europe and one of the longest and most severe on the planet. The IHREC report published in February was damning in its assessment of how the Government has responded to Covid-19. It declared that:
... the State has repeatedly blurred the boundary between legal requirements and public health guidance, generating widespread confusion about the extent of people’s legal obligations. This offends the rule of law, disrespects people’s [freedoms] and, in several specific respects, breaches standards of national and international law.
That is a shocking indictment of the Government actions over the past while.
One of the worst examples of the suppression of human rights has been that relating to religious services. Ireland is currently the only state in the European Union in which religious services are banned. We are one of a few countries on the planet, including Saudi Arabia and Korea, where religious services are banned. Under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, this is a human right. The Government has stated that it intends a return to religious services at some stage, perhaps at the end of May, at the same time as people return to attending museums and galleries. Attendance at museums and galleries is important, but they are not in the same place as a right specified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. For the Government to value these in the same way shows a massive disrespect for the well over 1 million people in this State for whom religious practice is an essential element of their lives.
Before Christmas, the Minister for Health said that religious services would not be criminalised. He stood up here in the Dáil and said that. However, representatives of the State stood up in the High Court last week to confirm that saying mass is now a criminal offence. A priest in Cavan was fined for saying mass, while a Protestant minister in Dublin was arrested for organising a religious service. It was unclear exactly what they were being charged with. Oran Doyle, a law professor in Trinity College Dublin has said that under the Government's new Covid-19 lockdown rules, holding outdoor religious services-----
-----including hearing confession, is deemed to be a criminal offence. Therefore, the Dáil has been bypassed as a matter of routine. That is wrong. I ask the Government to ensure that in developing restrictions, the law in general and the criminal law in the weeks to come, it desist from criminalising these two aspects of practice within Irish society. It is really important that we have a very clear system of criminal law.
It is also important in terms of criminal justice that people understand exactly what is illegal and what is not illegal. It is important also that there is no confusion regarding criminal law in this State. The truth of the matter is that there is a significant level of confusion now. There is confusion regarding the language the Minister is stating and what legal professionals acting for the State are indicating in the High Court. There is also confusion, according to a law professor in Trinity College Dublin, about what is a criminal act and what is not a criminal act. If we expect citizens to obey the law, then it must be clear to them exactly what is the law. Since the case in the High Court, I have asked the Minister serious questions about whether hearing confession outdoors constitutes a criminal act. Again, the Minister could not give a straight answer.
The Government is putting together the restrictions for the next month in respect of a country which has had the longest and most severe lockdown in the whole of Europe. I ask the Minister to ensure that we look at several key criteria in the development of future laws. These key criteria are the number of admissions to hospital and the number of admissions to ICUs. Right now, those figures are very low, thankfully. In some counties now, days go by when there are no Covid-19 cases. Indeed, the number of people being admitted to hospital in Munster is very low. This should feed into the Government's design of the criminal law in future. I am asking the Government to ensure that we accelerate the pace of reopening and address the liberties of the citizens of this country.
The purpose of this Bill is to rectify any constitutional infirmities in legislation identified by the Supreme Court in the case of Wayne Ellis. In its judgment in May 2019, the Supreme Court found that the Oireachtas could impose mandatory penalties but only if applied to all persons.
It is not constitutionally permissible for the Oireachtas to specify a mandatory penalty which only applies to a limited class of persons, such as a person who had previously committed one or more listed offences. The Supreme Court held that the application of a penalty in such cases is the administration of justice and, under Article 34 of the Constitution, may only be administered by the courts. The Bill is intended to remedy this fault.
It is easy to come into this Chamber and appear to be hard on crime and propose mandatory minimum sentences but we must consider the balance of powers and the constitutional requirements. This Bill is welcome in what it sets out to do, namely, to abolish certain mandatory minimum sentences, some which have been on the statute books for more than a century. According to The Irish Times, the facts of the Wayne Ellis case were that he had been successfully addressing his drug problems at Coolmine drug treatment centre and had not come to adverse Garda attention in the interim. The suspension was imposed on the basis of the "last chance" principle. The Director of Public Prosecutions, DPP, successfully appealed the sentence as being unduly lenient to the Court of Appeal, which imposed the mandatory minimum sentence of five years' imprisonment. On appeal the relevant legislative provisions were struck down. The Supreme Court ruled that they were an overreach by the Oireachtas into the powers reserved for the Judiciary, that is, deciding the length of a sentence.
Today, we heard demands for longer sentences to be passed in respect of the events in Killarney over the weekend without any evidence that what happened was actually caused by a criminal act. People must understand that it is very important to address the underlying issues because while it is easy to be seen to be tough on crime, it is much harder to come up with solutions and investment in education, particularly in inner city communities. It is harder to find more park rangers and to put in place a proper system and a crisis management plan for Killarney National Park, for example.
Going back to the Ellis case, the Supreme Court ruled that the Oireachtas does have a role but it is worth reflecting on whether we should assume this role with respect to mandatory minimum sentences. The Law Reform Commission recommended no new mandatory minimum sentences be introduced onto the Statute Book. Most of the time, when there are calls for mandatory minimum sentences, it is more to do with publicity for the Member in charge, rather than any real understanding of the law. The position of the Irish Penal Reform Trust, IPRT, is that we should look towards the repeal of others, but we must grasp the hard questions. In respect of many of the other mandatory sentences on the books, it may not be politically palatable to tackle them, but this should not stop us.
Crime is changing and the pandemic is accelerating this change. The number of petty offences is down all over the country but more serious offences are increasing and there is a shift towards more serious organised crime. It reflects the economics of crime for the criminal gangs as in-person opportunities to make money decline. We should do everything we can to prevent their increased power and sophistication.
I am very concerned about the statistics released this week which state that one in five detected sexual crimes reported to the Garda involved minors as both victims and perpetrators. This is extremely worrying, as it involves those so young, most of whom I am presuming are in their teens. I do not want to think that they could be younger. As a former teacher in a secondary school, I am aware that inappropriate comments and touching may happen regularly, to female students in particular, but they seldom report it. It seems to happen in crowded corridors and certainly when staff are not present. I wish to stress that I believe that only a small number of students are responsible but it is enough to make female students in particular feel very uncomfortable.
Rather than letting this continue, measures need to be taken to educate young people on what sexual abuse, sexual assault and rape are and how serious and unacceptable they are. Education on consent is vital. Sexual violence is on the increase. As the Minister knows, many sexual crimes are not reported and of those that are, very few are brought to court. I believe that sexual and violent crimes against people should attract much higher sentences. However, I do not feel it is the only measure that should be utilised to deal with this issue, and education and information are absolutely essential.
On average one in ten women are killed every year in Ireland by a current or previous partner. Many more are violently assaulted and left for dead. Sentencing for the non-fatal attacks is far too lenient. It is disgraceful. I also want to support the call by Una Ring and Eve McDowell to make stalking a separate offence and with significant penalties attached for those found guilty.
The other issue about which I am hugely concerned is the use of illegal drugs and drug-related crime. Many families in my constituency are being threatened on a regular basis because it is maintained that a member of the family owes some drug dealer hundreds or thousands of euro. I know of young people who have committed suicide as a result of these instances. Families are afraid to report the intimidation to the Garda. People are afraid to walk the streets in the evening or at night because of the regular drug dealing that is happening on many dark streets and alleys. More CCTV is required in order that people feel safe walking the streets. Areas also need to be well-lit. That requires more funding for local authorities to put these measures in place.
Similar to the sexual assault issue, a cross-departmental approach is required to deal adequately with the drugs issue. It cannot be viewed as a issue for the Department of Justice only. I wonder where the national drugs strategy is at now. Longer sentences for those found to be dealing class A drugs, such as cocaine and heroin, are urgently needed.
Finally, there is a frustration in many areas when people hear of instances of a crime being committed by a person who is out on bail. While I understand the need for every accusation of crime to be treated independently and the presumption of innocence to be maintained, if someone is found to have committed a crime while out on bail they should be treated more stringently by the court and a stiffer sentence given.
I am glad to get the opportunity to speak on the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Bill 2021.
In a recent case, the Supreme Court found that while the Oireachtas can impose mandatory penalties for offences, it can only do so where those penalties apply to all persons equally. Specifically, the Oireachtas cannot create a mandatory penalty, which only applies to a particular class of persons, such as a person who has previously committed a particular offence. The Court held that under Article 34 of the Constitution, such a penalty may only be administered by the courts.
Consequently, the purpose of the Bill is to remove any instances in legislation where such a mandatory penalty occurs. If this Bill helps to prevent crime and save the public and members of the Garda from criminals, I will fully support it, as it is hard on the honest working people out there watching criminals getting away with crime that at the end of the day, the taxpayer must pay for.
We see cases of ordinary people being nabbed by a hidden speed van when they are going to work or taking their children to school in the morning. Whether this happens in Bandon or Schull, it is the same story and it has to stop. We should be concentrating our efforts on serious criminals, which is what this Bill stands for. The money-making racket of giving penalty points and issuing fines to those caught driving at 52 km/h or 53 km/h in a 50 km/h zone has to stop. It is most unfair on hardworking people. I also call into question where these hidden speed vans are parked, often on what appears to be private property. The practice must be investigated. Like my good colleague, Deputy Mattie McGrath, who spoke on the issue last week, I ask, what is the benefit of speed vans? Most of their work is done inside and around towns, where there are rich pickings.
The Garda is doing a good job in respect of dealing with hardened speeding drivers, whose behaviour be stamped out at all costs. However, the practice of chasing innocent parents who are bringing their children to and from school, and the hard-working man or woman going to work every morning, is most unfair. One man told me that his wife was caught twice recently in west Cork in the period of few days, by a speed van that was hidden inside another person's yard. He said that he will never co-operate with the law again, as he had done before, if he sees some wrongdoing. These vans are penny-wise and pound-foolish.
While I have the floor to discuss issues relating to criminal justice, I would like to talk about the gardaí, who, in fairness, do a great job in protecting our communities. They receive a lot of unfair criticism. I have been asked to raise the fact that members of the Garda have not been offered the Covid vaccine yet, for those who want it. It is unfair that they have not been prioritised. They work on the front line and were forced out there during the pandemic. It is unfair to think that now, when it is time to reward some of them with a very simple vaccination, they are not considered.
I also want to talk about local community gardaí and the lack of good community gardaí at present. There is a concentration of Garda members on the roadside and in the bigger Garda stations throughout the country. That started a few years ago when Garda stations were closed under a Fine Gael policy that was supported by Fianna Fáil. I saw it happening in my own community, when the Goleen, Adrigole, Ballinacarriga and Ballinspittle Garda stations were closed. We fought on this issue and one of the stations was subsequently reopened after a brave struggle by the people of Ballinspittle.
Someone was helping them, perhaps the statue of the Blessed Virgin. Whoever it was, the Garda station was reopened. It is the smallest privilege that every community should enjoy to have a local garda to nip crime in the bud. It is unfortunate that we moved away from that.
Crime is down at the moment because of the pandemic and the restrictions on movement and travel. It is great that this has happened and I hope it stays that way. In general, however, people in local communities that have lost their Garda station and their community gardaí are petrified. Those community gardaí did important work with young people. There is no one in here who can wear a halo. Everybody makes mistakes and people were lucky when the local garda knew them, spoke to them and nipped any criminal behaviour in the bud. It does not matter whether that happens in Drimoleague, Ballinadee, Drogheda or anywhere else. If there is a local garda working with the local people, he or she will nip that type of criminal activity in the bud. Unfortunately, we have lost that and we need to concentrate on getting it back.
I have been involved in community work down through the years and have seen what community alert and neighbourhood watch groups have done to help people, even if it is just a simple call to elderly people to prevent a crime in a home or, if they are alone or frightened, to ensure they can press a button and get help. Being on their own is the most frightening thing for many elderly people. We have to look at returning local gardaí to the community. Garda Brigid Hartnett in Bantry has carried out very good work there during the pandemic. I probably should not refer to individuals but I also must praise Garda Damian White, who was an outstanding community garda in Bantry and probably one of the finest gardaí in the country. He focused very clearly on working with people, young and old, in the community. He was miles above others in his team. Ian O'Callaghan and John McCarthy are other good community gardaí who worked to nip crime in the bud. I could be standing here forever naming gardaí who have worked very hard in their communities, when they were allowed to be stationed there. We fought alongside the people of Kilbrittain to keep Garda John McCarthy. There was some concern a number of years ago that he was going to be taken out of there. We fought bravely to ensure he remained to keep the people of Kilbrittain, Ballinadee, Ballinspittle, Timoleague and Barryroe safe in their homes. That is what gardaí should be doing. I would appreciate a refocusing to ensure that happens.
We have spoken in the House about CCTV and the need to make funds available to provide it. I was involved in a local community alert group in Schull that put together funds to install CCTV in the town. It provides great security to people there to have it in place. It is also in place in Mallow, Bantry and other towns, offering great security to the people living there. We always talk about dealing with criminals after the event. Perhaps we should concentrate on putting funds and efforts into deterring criminality before it happens. We can only do that by deploying more gardaí in communities, putting in CCTV, giving the gardaí better resources, including proper Garda vehicles, and reopening stations like the ones in Adrigole, Ballinacarriga and the many others that the Government decided to close a few years ago. It did so without any consultation with the local community, only dictation from the top.
I will be supporting this Bill as it moves forward. Its provisions will help to prevent crime and give suitable penalties to those who carry out very serious offences. We need to concentrate on the great work done by gardaí down through the years to help young people and nip crime in the bud. If there was a small amount of crime, it was dealt with locally and did not go beyond that. That is the focus we should have for our young people today. Every human makes a mistake but a good local garda will put a person in the right direction without being heavy-handed and getting others involved. That type of thing will never be forgotten by a young person. We need to use a bit of cop on in dealing with such issues.
The Ceann Comhairle might let me know if Deputy Danny Healy-Rae arrives in the Chamber. If he does, I will share time with him.
I am pleased to speak in the debate on this Bill. Much of it draws on the cases that have turned up in the Supreme Court. It is very important that legislation that is made and passed in the Oireachtas applies equally to all citizens and will withstand the test of time. Sections 4 to 7, inclusive, amend provisions relating to mandatory sentences for second and subsequent firearms and misuse of drugs offences. Sections 8 and 9 provide for consequential amendments to the Criminal Justice Act 2007 and the Parole Act 2019 arising from the deletion of provisions set out in the Bill. Some parts of the legislation relate to provisions that go back to the foundation of the State. This reform is badly needed.
I want to put on record my support for the ordinary men and women of An Garda Síochána up and down the country. I salute the way they have been out on the front line doing their best. I spent a very pleasurable morning last Monday with the community garda in Ardfinnan and Cahir, Noel Glavin, who is a proud Cork man but has been based in Cahir for a long number of years. He visits elderly people in their homes as part of the community effort during the Covid crisis. It was wonderful to see, on that beautiful morning, a sense of hope in people after 13 long, arduous and frustrating months. I salute Sergeant Ray Moloney in Cahir and Sergeant Kieran O'Regan in Clonmel and their counterparts in other districts, as well as gardaí Jenny Gough and Claire Murphy. I thank all the gardaí in Cahir, Clonmel and throughout my county and the whole country who are out helping people in the spirit of the meitheal. Ní neart go cur le chéile. Cahir lost its community Garda car but, fortunately, it has been replaced. It is a dedicated community vehicle for the gardaí in the town. Gardaí must stand in the kitchens of the people if they want the support of the people.
It is very frustrating for gardaí when they go into court and their evidence is pulled asunder and every trick in the book is taken out to undermine them. It is, of course, the right of the accused person to have a proper defence and to be proven innocent, if he or she is innocent. The principle of innocent until proven guilty must always be the benchmark and standard to which we aspire. However, one sees people with 25, 30 or 40 charges against them and there is the whole situation with free legal aid. I firmly believe that it should be a case of three strikes and you are out. Some people think it should be two but I would say three. The situation is very frustrating for the Garda Síochána and it undermines the community support for gardaí. I was taken to task by the Taoiseach earlier today in this Chamber for expressing my feelings about certain issues. The point I was making is that we had a great country and we earned our freedom deeply. I told a story earlier in the House about the valiant fight for freedom in this country. Many of our rights have been stripped away from us during the Covid crisis though legislation that has been passed at regular intervals in this House.
We had a situation where the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, when introducing the main legislation dealing with restrictions, told Deputy McNamara and me that there were no provisions in the Bill to penalise, criminalise, fine or imprison a priest for saying mass or hearing confessions. He told us that and he has never corrected the record of the House. It is very easy for the Taoiseach to lecture me today but it is very important that Ministers, especially, would ensure, if they err or mislead the Dáil, knowingly or otherwise, that they correct the record. In this instance, it has not been corrected. I have asked the Minister for Health time after time to do so and I have discussed the matter with the Ceann Comhairle. The Taoiseach attended a meeting with church leaders last Thursday week. While they were meeting in one room, the Minister for Health was signing a statutory instrument which underpinned the provision in the legislation to which I referred, which he denied was in it, to criminalise priests and make them liable for a criminal offence. We see how priests such as Fr. Hughes, a wonderful man in Cavan, and many others have been brought before the courts. We saw what happened in Athlone last weekend.
There must always be a balance in things. Fair play is fine play with me. I am involved in the second community alert group that was set up in the country, in Newcastle. That is Caisléan Nua na Siuire, Tiobraid Arann theas. We were under Dungarvan Garda station but we are now back in the county boundaries in Tipperary. The Garda needs our support and it always must get it.
An issue arose today about taxi drivers not being allowed to hold a drive-by protest tomorrow. I accept that this would constitute a gathering, in the essence of the word, but the proposal was to drive by and not get out of their cars and interact with others. They were told clearly that if they did so, they would each be fined €100. People are only trying to protect their living or recover whatever living they had. These people invested in their vehicles. All self-employed people invest in their business and their career and many of them go on to give employment and support other families. All they are trying to do is rescue and regain what they have lost. Many of them do not have a rateable premises and did not, therefore, get any supports. While local authorities and departmental officials worked hard to try to help people, there just was not enough money to go around. That was the number one issue.
They were trying to protest. I might have given the impression that taxi drivers from Tipperary were coming. No. They contacted me to ask me to ensure I would support their colleagues in Dublin, who would represent them at Merrion Square in the morning. That is not happening now because the Garda has told those drivers clearly that if they turn up, they will be fined €100 each and there would be a possibility of a court conviction. That is a fact, so where could we go?
This Bill is vital. We have a proud record of jury service and I salute the members of the public who carry out the duty when asked. It is part of their civic duty and they must be looked after. We must also bring legislation to modernise the process. There should be an impact assessment of each piece of legislation once it is passed. We had this same debate as it related to a justice Bill that was debated with the Minister of State in the Chamber. It could be 20 years before an Act is reviewed so we can deal with glaring anomalies.
I support this Bill and I always support good legislation. No matter how good we make the legislation here, and regardless of the expertise in the Department, there is always room for correction because of unintended consequences. The Firearms Act 1965 required a mandatory five-year sentence for some convictions and this was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. There was reference in the notes to a gentleman being arrested with a sawn-off shotgun, bottles of petrol, stockings and other items. Anybody going around with such items, even if under the influence of drugs or alcohol - I pity the people who are - knows a sawn-off shotgun is a lethal weapon. It would cover the width of this building from ten or 15 feet and do untold damage. We cannot have people getting suspended sentences in such cases. People go out with such weapons with intent.
A person may have a shotgun in his own house with a licence. He may be shooting vermin because he is a farmer. I have heard of cases of such people shouting at intruders into their home that they have a gun and I have heard of cases where the gun was taken from them. There is a balancing act in defending a home, a family or oneself.
I wish the Minister of State well, as I have done in the past. The Minister has gone off to greater things and I wish her well in her voyage with her new baby. I hope all goes well for her and her family. I know the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, will take over the brief. There are many issues to deal with in the Department of Justice and goodness knows there is much work there.
We must try to reform free legal aid and change the adversarial system in the courts, with people before the courts sometimes being intimidated in the precinct of the court. There is no room for that and we must have the rule of law. The research note indicates sexual offences were being committed on minors and, even worse, sexual and other offences were being committed by minors. We must ask what is going on in society and in homes and schools. We must consider why this is happening while examining our education. It is so important that we have civil society that is proud of democracy.
It is why I am concerned with the question I had today about our democratic rights, particularly my democratic right to ask questions of the Minister for Health. I cannot get answers despite asking questions week in and week out. After the first week or two, I used my time to ask questions and seek written answers. The Minister has plenty of officials to take note of my questions but I have never got an answer. It demonstrates contempt for this House and for me and the people I represent. I am seeking the basic answers to the basic questions. We need them.
The Minister of State protested when Deputy Tóibín talked about public worship. That is enshrined in European law and decisions of the European Court of Human Rights. We have the longest lockdown in Europe, if not the world, and we are one of only three countries when we had level 3 restrictions that denied the right to worship. The others were Saudi Arabia and one of the Koreas and I would not like to be compared with those countries.
I spoke today about spiritual nourishment. I want the priests and clergy of all denominations to have the right to be declared essential workers. It is about this spiritual nourishment. There are people who want communion or confession on a daily basis. Their faith is so important to them, regardless of their religion. This relates to their mental and physical health. We will have fitter and healthier people.
Priests should be allowed to administer to their flock. There is a duty under their oaths of ordination but they are prohibited from doing this. We see what happened in Athlone in Sunday and what is happening with Fr. PJ Hughes. There is no need for it. The vast majority of people are obeying the rules and a few are going to pray. Our Lord spoke about a few gathering in his name being wonderful. We must look at that.
We must be sensitive. We must not have a repeat of what happened today, when taxi drivers were intimidated into abandoning their protest. They would not have been on the street or been a danger to anybody. They were not told that they could not go; they were told that if they went, they would be fined and there would be court proceedings. That is totalitarianism and the heavy hand of the law. I always ask people in my community to support An Garda Síochána. Men and women have given their life in this country for the uniform so we can have the freedom to sleep in our beds. There is a very thin line between that and anarchy. We need to support our gardaí. I again salute those who work under Superintendent William Leahy in Clonmel and Superintendent Denis Whelan in Cahir. They also have community teams in Tipperary town and all around. Some people are retiring so we need new recruits who can aspire to work in the Garda.
In the short time available, I will address some concerns in the Bill and other issues. This is necessary legislation that has arisen from the Supreme Court decision on the constitutionality of mandatory minimum sentences for categories of people, namely, those who are repeat offenders of specific crimes. Perhaps the most noteworthy of these relate to firearms and misuse of drugs offences. The Supreme Court held that whereas the Oireachtas can provide for a mandatory penalty for an offence, it can only do so where a penalty applies equally to all offenders.
Although the power to legislate for mandatory sentences for second offences will be removed from the Oireachtas, I hope the judicial system will ensure appropriate sentences are imposed for those found guilty of supplying large quantities of drugs in the State. Limerick, like many other locations across the State, has been plagued by the scourge of drug dealing. It was reported yesterday that drugs valued at €340,000 were seized on Monday evening. Unfortunately, large quantities of illegal drugs are still finding a way into our communities, causing havoc, and mandatory sentencing has not acted as a major deterrent to this activity.
I commend the Garda on making such a large seizure of drugs, cocaine in particular. There has been a step change in the Garda response to drug dealing in the past number of weeks in my city and I urge the Garda to keep up the pressure. Recently, Operation Copóg, involving the Garda Síochána in Limerick and Limerick City Council, was launched to deal with a specific problem in a specific area. It is having an impact and I hope it is maintained until we sort out the matter in question. The local efforts of gardaí have had an impact on a gang and diluted its power in an area but we are receiving news of increased activities in others. It is vital the Garda tackles this upsurge.
I will also reference community gardaí. I have mentioned high-profile Garda seizures, which are necessary and very welcome, but it is my firm belief more must be done on a community level. Such approaches can be effective in turning vulnerable and young people in particular away from crime. Community policing can play a vital role in efforts and having dedicated gardaí engaging with people in communities demonstrates to the communities that gardaí are there to help them. Community garda activity can show a human face of the Garda Síochána while building trust between the police force and the community.
It is regrettable that community garda numbers have fallen dramatically in recent years. In 2015, for example, there were 58 community gardaí in Limerick and now there are 31. I urge the Minister for Justice and the Garda Commissioner to increase these numbers while ensuring community gardaí are visible and approachable in their duties.
There is a sense that there are not enough gardaí on the streets in Limerick. When we had the regeneration programme, it was suggested by Mr. John Fitzgerald that we would need an additional 100 gardaí for the regeneration areas alone. We never got those. The numbers have increased but retirements have brought that number back to where it was. I appeal to the Minister of State and the Garda Commissioner to increase these numbers and show that policing numbers are adequate, so when people ring a local Garda station, they can get an answer and a service that allows them to feel safe and secure in their homes and communities.
Sinn Féin has indicated that it will support this Bill and I endorse that support. The criminal justice system is something of a mystery to most people. They are unsure and, in many cases, puzzled about how decisions are made. This is sometimes not helped by the media who use the courts system to sensationalise their stories and, more recently, use court cases for clickbait online. Our ultimate goal should be to keep as many people as possible out of the criminal justice system. We must ensure that the myriad preventative programmes are well resourced. These include children and family services, youth initiatives, family resource centres, youth diversion programmes, Tusla's meitheal and child and family support networks, gambling, drug and alcohol addiction and rehabilitation services and many other vital community services.
Mental health and addiction, in particular, cause more people to be involved in the criminal justice system than any other reason. In my community, the Genesis Psychotherapy and Family Therapy Service has produced a well thought and strategic plan that would double the amount of counselling hours from 3,800 to over 7,500 at a cost of just under €500,000. To put that in context, the average cost of keeping a person in prison is €78,000 per year. The cost of keeping a young person in a secure unit is €200,000 per person per year. Let us do the mathematics and think about how we could reduce the number of victims and survivors of crimes. Consider how we could prevent so much waste of human life in the criminal justice system.
I also wish to raise the issue of community policing and community safety. In 2016, Garda Trevor Laffan, who had over 35 years of experience in community policing publicly stated:
There were always gardai who became involved in sports clubs, called into primary schools and became part of the social fabric of the community. During the late eighties there was a feeling that gardai were becoming disconnected from the general public and ‘Community Policing’ was introduced in an effort to reverse that trend.
Over the following twenty years, that’s exactly what it did. Initially, community gardai were tasked with developing Neighbourhood Watch, a crime prevention strategy, and the Garda Schools Programme. ... as time passed, community policing teams pushed the envelope and developed very successful methods of community engagement.
I am a passionate supporter of the community policing model but, unfortunately, it is being starved of resources. Recently, there was a series of attacks in Dublin 15. Thankfully, the incidence has calmed down, but there were a number of shootings in the last couple of years. I spoke to a community garda who said: "It is deeply frustrating. I cannot do my job because every time an incident happens, every time a checkpoint needs to be put up or a door-to-door knock, it could take four to five to six days. It could take weeks to get around a particular area if a car has been dumped after a shooting or a robbery". That is time which she said is being taken away from her job, the job she loves and always wanted to do, which is to work in the community.
I strongly appeal to the Government to listen to the Deputies who have spoken in this debate about community policing. They have talked about the fear in our communities and about drug gangs and criminal gangs that have taken a grip of some areas. I worked in the Coolock-Darndale area for 20 years. When I left there last year after being elected to this House, I had never seen as much fear in a community in all the years I have been working on this. We must take back control. We need to ensure that the community feels safe. We must work with the Garda, the councils and in an inter-agency way to ensure we have safe communities as we move forward. It can be done, but they need support and resources. The community deserves that.
The shocking closure of addiction services such as St. Michael's ward in Beaumont Hospital and the services in Keltoi Rehabilitation Unit in the Phoenix Park is an absolute indictment. They were closed down in the middle of an epidemic.
The Criminal Justice (Amendment) Bill 2021 is designed to correct potential anomalies resulting from a ruling of the Supreme Court on the sentencing of individuals to mandatory minimum sentences for a second or subsequent offence under the relevant legislation. Many of the mandatory sentences for violent offences and drugs offences that are being removed from the various Acts under this Bill were introduced as a consequence of the escalating criminal activity in communities, particularly with regard to drug dealing and the use of firearms. Such criminal activity, especially drug dealing, has become even more pervasive in today's society. In areas such as Ballymun and Finglas in my constituency of Dublin North-West, it is unfortunate that drugs have become more easily obtainable than ever. There also appears to be a corresponding decrease in police resources. A clear example is the significant decrease in the number of community gardaí not only in my area but in other areas across most of the country. In the Dublin metropolitan area north, which encompasses the greater part of my constituency, the number of community gardaí has gone from 86 in 2012 to 11 in 2020. It is a disgrace that an area with a population of over 90,000 has such limited Garda resources available.
Over the years there has been a massive increase in the number of properties in the area. Areas such as Ballymun, Finglas and Santry have experienced big increases in local populations due to large-scale construction of housing and apartment projects. Many more are in the pipeline. There are areas in the constituency where drug dealing and its related activities are commonplace. To combat this we need intelligence-driven police action, along with dedicated drug squads to target people dealing drugs. The illegal use of drugs is becoming a chronic problem across my constituency. The subject is constantly raised at drugs task force meetings, joint policing committees and local area safety forum meetings.
Figures for the last couple of years show that Ireland has one of the lowest police-to-population ratios in Europe, with 278 gardaí per 100,000 citizens. That is 40 fewer than the EU average. The population of Dublin North-West is becoming increasingly diverse and is growing rapidly. It is a constituency that experiences serious inequalities. The constituency has areas that are both socially and economically disadvantaged, where many people live with persistent poverty and social exclusion. Homelessness is a serious issue in the constituency as well. These factors affect and determine how policing in the community must operate, as well as the context in which policing generally operates. There is a perception among the public that judges are out of touch with the public. That is not helped by their refusal to attend safety forum meetings and joint policing committee meetings. They have refused numerous times to do that.
Hopefully, this Bill will address some of the anomalies pointed out by the Supreme Court. I would also like to think that judges would think very strongly about their general sentencing policies, because many people are of the opinion that the sentences in some cases are too lenient and do not fit the bill.
I thank everyone who made a contribution to the debate on this Bill. As Deputies will have noted, the Bill is limited in scope and is designed to rectify the constitutional infirmity identified by the Supreme Court with regard to repealing second or subsequent mandatory sentences, mainly in the area of firearms and misuse of drugs.
As I noted in my introductory remarks, the Supreme Court ruling does not affect provisions in the statute which provide for presumptive minimum sentences where there is judicial discretion and the issue is not addressed by the Bill.
I have listened closely to the contributions and wish to address some of them. Before I get into those, as Minister of State with responsibility for justice, I cannot let Deputy Mattie McGrath’s remarks earlier go without comment. The drawing of a moral equivalence between the actions of Nazi Germany and those of An Garda Síochána is simply outrageous. The Garda Síochána is an unarmed police force that acts in the spirit of community policing. The Nazi Germany regime exterminated 6 million Jews. It exterminated people because they were gay. It exterminated Jehovah's Witnesses, gypsies and political prisoners because of their political ideas. It is not just an insult to An Garda Síochána. Unfortunately, there is a trend across Europe at the moment with certain political people and groups to trivialise genocide and what happened during the Holocaust. That is also part of the consequences of the Deputy's statement. I believe Deputy Mattie McGrath is a good person and I do not think that was his intention. I ask him to reflect on his comments, however. I ask him again to withdraw them.
Several themes came out during the debate today, of which community safety, tackling serious crime and resources were probably the key ideas. I remind Deputies that the mission of An Garda Síochána is about keeping people safe. It is a simple but clear message. For me, that is about people being and feeling safe in their communities. To achieve that sense goes much wider than An Garda Síochána and requires a joint approach right across our communities. That was recognised by the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland. It involves preventative and rehabilitation actions, as well as enforcement. It involves mental health, education, housing, and tackling poverty is a crucial part in this regard, as well as the built environment. It is reflected in the key principle of the Programme for Government: Our Shared Future to build stronger and safer communities.
The Government's implementation plan for the recommendations of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland, A Policing Service for the Future, is strongly focused on people's need to see an increase of visibility of An Garda Síochána on the streets and an increase in local engagement.
Community engagement is a defining feature of An Garda Síochána. We have seen that in action during the period of Covid-19. I thank An Garda Síochána at all ranks for its efforts above and beyond the call of duty over the last 14 months in dealing with Covid-19 and ensuring the vulnerable people in our communities are protected and looked out for.
We want structures to ensure the community element is retained and strengthened. That is why we published the general scheme of the landmark policing, security and community safety Bill, which was developed on the basis of the recommendations of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland. It recognised that community safety requires all of State services to work together with local communities to make our communities safer. It is a whole-of-government responsibility.
Key measures include placing statutory obligations on the Department and public service bodies to co-operate with one another to deliver safer communities, establishing national structures to ensure collaboration is working and establishing local community safety partnerships to develop tailored local safety plans.
Three community safety partnerships are already up and running in north inner city Dublin and counties Longford and Waterford. These will be rolled out across the country. Operation Faoiseamh has been in operation during Covid-19, with enhanced and proactive supports to victims of domestic violence. Unfortunately, during the period of Covid-19, we have seen a significant increase in occurrences of domestic violence. The Still Here campaign is ongoing and stillhere.ieis an important website for anybody looking for supports.
My Youth Justice Strategy 2021-2027, which was published a couple of weeks ago, has fundamental policies of widening out engagement with young people who come into contact with the justice system and brings in the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, as well as other Departments. I thank the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, for his support. It is about ensuring that we can engage with young people who are coming in contact with the criminal justice system, and even before they do so. We have consistently seen through the research that when young people get involved in criminal activity, very often, behind that is personal trauma such as mental illness or drug and alcohol addiction within the family or they come from minority groups or are early school-leavers. We need to engage on an early basis and divert those young people and children away from a life of crime into a more positive life they themselves will want.
We also introduced the antisocial behaviour forum, which recently brought out policy on tackling the scourge of scrambler motorbikes. However, we also engage with those young people who have a genuine interest in motorbikes to then get them into using their activities in a more positive way. I have also re-instigated the rural safety forum in order that we can come up with policies and ideas on addressing the issues around rural crime.
All this work is being supported with unprecedented resources, with €1.952 billion being given to An Garda Síochána in budget 2021. We now have 14,600 members of the Garda with provision for further recruitment later this year. It is all about a vision for community safety. Our vision is ambitious but we are seeing significant steps being taken on that between myself and the Minister, Deputy McEntee, who has done an extremely good job in driving forward the implementations of policies.
The Bill at hand is very important. The irony does not escape me that one or two Deputies came in here and did not even mention the Bill in their debates, but instead used it as a soapbox when the Bill itself seeks to change an error in a previous Bill that was found to be unconstitutional. Perhaps, if those Deputies spent a little bit more time scrutinising Bills instead of using the Dáil purely as a soapbox, we might not end up in these situations to begin with. It is a sacred duty of any legislator to actually scrutinise legislation. I commend the Bill to the House.