Tuesday, 26 July 2011
Criminal Justice (Community Service) (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2011: Second Stage
I am happy to be back in the Seanad for a second time today to present this Bill to the House. As I am sure Senators know, the purpose of the Bill is to encourage the greater use of community service as an alternative sanction to imprisonment. The Bill reflects the commitment set out in the national recovery plan to extend the use of community service orders by introducing a requirement on judges when considering the imposition of a sentence of 12 months or less, to consider first the alternative sanction of community service.
Imprisonment - the deprivation of a person's liberty - is the most serious sanction available to the State in punishing a person convicted of a criminal offence. It is rightly regarded as a sentence of last resort. In the area of penal policy non-custodial or alternative sanctions are an essential part of the sentencing options available to a court when imposing a sanction on a convicted offender. Many minor offences, while carrying potential sentences of imprisonment, may not warrant a sentence of custody. This is where non-custodial sentencing options form an essential part of the judicial discretion in sentencing.
The most common non-custodial sanction used by the courts is the imposition of a fine. Other alternative sanctions include suspended sentences, application of the Probation of Offenders Act, the imposition of a restriction on movement order, or the imposition of a community service order, on which we are focusing today.
Before addressing the Bill, I would, first, like to briefly outline the existing framework for community service. As an alternative sanction to imprisonment, community service was first introduced under the Criminal Justice (Community Service) Act 1983, the provisions of which were first introduced in a Private Members' Bill which I published as long ago as 1982. Under that Act, a court may make a community service order in respect of an offender who is over the age of 16 years and has been convicted of a criminal offence for which a sentence of imprisonment would be appropriate. A community service order requires an offender to perform unpaid work for between 40 and 240 hours. There are a number of conditions which must be met before the making of an order. A court may not apply a community service order unless satisfied, on the basis of an assessment report of a probation officer, that the offender is a suitable person for the purposes of such an order, that appropriate work is available and that the offender has consented to the order.
Increasing the use of the community service scheme was one of the main recommendations of the value for money and policy review of the community service scheme which was published in October 2009. As noted by the review, community service as an alternative sanction to custody achieves several goals benefiting the State, the community and the individual offender. Community service delivers significant financial savings as it is a considerably cheaper sanction than imprisonment. An analysis of the costs involved indicate that the comparative cost of a community service order is unlikely to exceed 34% of the alternative cost of imprisonment and may be estimated to be as low as 11% to 12%.
Community service benefits offenders by diverting them from prison, allowing them to maintain ties with family, friends and community, including continuing in education or employment, as the case may be. It also offers reparation to the community which benefits from the unpaid work of those serving these orders. However, despite such benefits, the value for money and policy review identified a significant shortfall in the capacity utilisation of the community service scheme. Nationwide, capacity utilisation was estimated at only 33%, although, as I will shortly outline, there has been an increase in the number of community service orders, particularly in the Dublin area, in the last year. That low capacity utilisation, identified by the value for money review, was a reflection of the fact that a very small number of courts were responsible for the majority of community service orders made. In 2006 only 29 courts, of 108 court venues, accounted for 80% of the total number of community service orders, while just 12 courts accounted for 60% of the orders for that year. Notwithstanding the recent increase in the use of community service, it is a fact that a relatively small number of courts continue to be responsible for the majority of orders made.
Today the probation service published its 2010 annual report, following its submission to Government. The report highlights the prioritisation given to community service in 2010, in particular the development of a new model of community service which was piloted in the Dublin area, prior to extending it nationwide to all appropriate courts. The model, based around a dedicated community service team with enhanced administrative support, was successful in producing a number of major benefits including more timely and efficient assessments, prompt starting of court orders, improved attendance at work sites and an increased number of orders made. The annual report identifies that eight out of ten community service orders were commenced within ten days of induction, that seven out of ten were completed within six months and that the greater focus in the Dublin pilot area saw an increase in community service orders of 34%.
Given the purpose of the Bill before us today - to encourage greater use of community service orders - it is extremely encouraging to know that the probation service has in place the necessary structures and procedures which will support and manage the growth in usage. I have mentioned the beneficiaries of community service - be it the offender or the Exchequer. The positive impacts extend into our communities and I would like to outline some of those projects undertaken throughout the country. In 2009, the community service graffiti removal project was piloted in south Dublin. Using specialised equipment, it was successful in removing unsightly graffiti in local communities. It delivered significant savings for communities and councils together with providing a positive and visible benefit for communities. For the offenders, a sense of job satisfaction was experienced, particularly given the appreciation shown by the communities for the work done. The positive impact on offenders manifested in consistent attendance, good performance and reductions in warnings. In 2010, the project was extended to the Dublin City Council area, further rolled out to Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown Council area and expanded in Cork.
Community service has also proved useful in reacting to events in local areas. In late 2009, following significant flooding in Athlone and Ballinalsoe, those engaged in community service assisted in the local response with flood relief and clean up work. A significant number of community service projects involve environmental improvement programmes such as the graffiti removal, which I have mentioned, as well as picking up litter, gardening and other environmental improvements. The positive social and community impacts of these projects mean the probation service actively pursues environmental work projects. As well as working with local authorities, partnerships are formed with tidy towns groups and others. Since 2007, the probation service has worked in association with Monaghan Tidy Towns to utilise persons on community service. As a resource for local communities, the importance of community service should not be underestimated and every effort to extend its use should be encouraged.
I have mentioned the lead role taken by the probation service in seeking to increase the number of persons that could potentially be placed on community service. There continues to be scope, however, for greater use of community service. As I stated at the outset, imprisonment is - and should be - a sentence of last resort. This Bill is focused on those sentences of up to 12 months, recognising that there has been a significant increase in sentences of up to this period of time. In 2009, 9,216 persons were committed to sentences of up to one year, representing 85% of committals that year. As these sentences indicate, the offences involved are generally of a minor nature, 40% were for road traffic offences and I believe these offenders should be considered for community service. I believe if the courts gave greater consideration to community service, without the necessity for this legislation, a great many people who have been sentenced to short terms of imprisonment could by now have undertaken such service.
The primary purpose of this Bill is to introduce a requirement on the courts to consider first imposing a community service order as an alternative to custody in certain circumstances. The proposed amendment provides that a court before which a person is convicted and in circumstances where a sentence of up to 12 months would be appropriate,shall consider, as an alternative to that sentence, the imposition of a community service order. This requirement to consider imposing a community service order in such cases will be the primary new feature of the community service process. However, the obligation introduced by this amendment is simply an obligation to consider making a community service order. Whether the court proceeds to make an order is entirely a matter for the court. It may be substantially influenced by the probation report that assists the court to make such a decision. To impose any further obligation on the court would be an inappropriate interference with the judicial function. The decision to impose a community service order will also remain dependent on the satisfaction of the conditions for the imposition of such an order as set out in the 1983 Act and to which I earlier referred.
This is a relatively short Bill and I do not intend to outline its main provisions simply because I have essentially covered them in my speech. Before concluding, I would like to address the impact of the Bill on prison capacity. The motivation to deliver the proposals contained in the Bill is not to deliver prison spaces, although in the short term, it may well provide some benefit in this regard. It is true that the number of committals for sentences of less than 12 months has increased in recent years. In 2009 85% of the total number of sentenced prisoners committed to prison that year received sentences of up to 12 months. According to monthly statistics the proportion of people in custody on a daily basis who are serving short sentences is around 15%. The short nature of these sentences results in quick turnaround of such prisoners with little or no cumulative effect on prisoner numbers for the following year. Increasing community service will not necessarily significantly impact available prison space. This Bill is about diverting those persons receiving these relatively short sentences away from prison and making them subject to a sanction which benefits them and their communities. Community service as an alternative sanction to imprisonment is not new. Today, we are merely seeking to increase the use that is made of this sentencing option.
This Bill is a further step in diverting persons from prison where it is appropriate to do so. The Fines Act 2010 provided a balanced and more humane approach to the determination and collection of fines. That Act also provides for alternatives to imprisonment, including community service, in the event of a failure to recover a fine or its value in seized goods. It delivers a key commitment of the Government programme and is a step in our delivering a sentencing system that provides a safer society at a lower cost to the taxpayer.
I again emphasise that the positive impact of community service is far-reaching - delivering at a national, community and individual level. Financial benefits will accrue to the Exchequer from the significantly lower costs associated with community service as compared to imprisonment. The community obtains a measure of reparation and the benefit of unpaid work. Community service allows offenders to remain in work or education, to maintain links with family and community and to deliver reparation for the offence. There are persons sentenced to short terms of imprisonment that could, and should, be subject to a community service order. This Bill seeks to focus attention on and encourage greater use of this non-custodial sentencing option. It has also been the experience that a significant number of persons, sentenced to short terms of imprisonment, subsequently reoffend and again are subjected to a custodial sentence. It is my hope that greater use of community service orders will result in a different perception from some of these individuals and to some extent reduce the level of recidivism.
I appreciate that the Seanad sat late to take the Bill. I am conscious that it was more than one year ago when as Opposition spokesperson for the Fine Gael Party I made a speech urging that we have such legislation. My predecessor, the then Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, former Deputy Dermot Ahern, announced some six weeks later the then Government's intention to publish legislation of this nature. He published a measure of a similar nature, which applied only to persons whom a judge was considering sentencing to a period of up to six months. I think it is appropriate that it apply to those who are being considered for sentences of up to 12 months. I think it is correct that we seek to direct those engaged in minor offending, who up to now have been sentenced to terms of imprisonment, to make reparation to the community in the hope it will generate a different perception on their part of the consequence of their offending and redirect the manner in which they consider their behaviour vis-À-vis, the local communities in which they live or whom have been impacted upon by their criminal conduct.
I hope the Bill will have the support of the House.
The Bill will have the support of the Fianna Fáil Party because as the Minister acknowledged it is another Bill off the Fianna Fáil shelf. It is a good Bill and we want to see it passed as soon as possible. The Bill makes it a requirement for judges to consider community service orders as an alternative to prison sentences for minor offences. The previous Government, whom I supported, published an almost identical Bill earlier this year. We believe that the greater use, and broad acceptance of community service orders will benefit the Prison Service, the Exchequer, the community that benefits from their work and the offender.
This Bill is designed to increase these orders. As we know, community service orders direct an offender to do unpaid work in the community for a period of time as an alternative to prison. In my role as a local representative, I am often struck by the number of local bodies which express interest in taking on people on community service orders. There is a demand for services to be provided in the community and this provides readily available personnel, some of whom may have skills which might be suitable. It also saves that person from going to prison and the humiliation of that if it is not necessary.
The Bill requires a judge to consider community service where the alternative sentence is imprisonment for 12 months or less. I acknowledge the Fianna Fáil Bill referred to offences with sentences of six months or less. It is a matter of taste or judgment and I suppose 12 months is a better option because there was always a distinction in terms of the offences. If one was imprisoned for longer than 12 months, the offence was considered to be more grave in nature.
Our Bill never reached Second Stage due to the dissolution of the Dáil. That is nobody's fault but our own, so I will not blame that on the current Government. The intention was there.
No. The Bill is practically identical to our one with the exception of the six months.
This was put forward in the programme for Government and we support this aspect of it. We support the Bill because it will encourage greater use of community service orders and will provide reparations to the community in the form of work for the community. It will result in financial savings which are not to be underestimated because the Irish Prison Service and prisons are under severe pressure. It will help the offender to maintain ties with his or her local area and will enhance public safety, although at times there will be legitimate concerns about some of the characters who will appear on these schemes. Apart from the money saved on prisons, it will make our prisons a better place to be.
This is part of a comprehensive approach to crime. We talked about white collar crime earlier and how we are dealing with it in a very tough way and giving really tough investigative powers to our investigators and prosecutors. Some might say this is going soft on crime but I do not believe it is. It is part of a comprehensive approach to dealing with what some might describe as a crime epidemic. It allows us to be smarter and more clever in the way we deal with crime and allocate punishment in society. It also allows the punishment to be of benefit to the community. We support the Bill and wish it safe passage.
I welcome the Minister. If he continues to process Fianna Fáil-inspired legislation in such a favourable fashion, I am sure we will make great progress. I appreciate that perhaps the genesis of the legislation came from the last Government, even though it was interesting that the Minister said - I am sure it was not self-praise - that back in 1982, he introduced the concept of community service by way of a Private Members' Bill. Much water has flowed under the bridge since then.
If one looks at the statistics, it is fair to say that the concept of prisons and the Irish Prison Service has not been particularly successful. There is a high level of re-offending and prison has become a university of crime for many offenders. People imprisoned for relatively minor offences meet more hardened criminals in the system, come out of jail and commit more serious offences. It would be helpful to try to break that cycle.
There is this equation that the Minister for Justice and Equality and the Government are only doing a good job if they manage to provide more prison spaces, and we have had a debate on Thornton Hall. I remember in the other House in the mid-1990s or so when consideration was being given to the building of a prison in Castlerea. For 12 months or so, it appeared that the prison would not be built, perhaps because of Government finances. It would probably only happen in Ireland but there was a protest march in the town of Castlerea in favour of the prison. It could be said that there is a marching tradition in Roscommon.
If one looks at the statistics - the Minister has done much work on this - one would have to recognise that prison has not been an appropriate remedy for every offender and the concept of community service is wise. The Minister's decision, by way of this legislation, to try to extend community service will lead to very positive results. If we can try to build on community service and, in particular, try to build a broader and better educational perspective into it, it could genuinely change people's opportunities, careers and lives.
The work done by those on community service is valuable. The situation in Athlone was instanced but we should aspire to ensure that every person who undertakes community service is very much linked into the educational system as well. It is fair to say that many of these people come from disadvantaged and socially challenged backgrounds. Many people sentenced for minor crimes would not have good educational qualifications and, in one sense, one could almost write their life story. If one can intervene through education and try to ensure the community service involves a significant level of input from an educational perspective, that would certainly be very helpful.
The Minister mentioned prison accommodation, to which I referred earlier. We all appreciate there is an accommodation crisis and that many prisoners are being detained in conditions which are not appropriate to the Ireland of 2011. The annual report of the Inspector of Prisons generally portrays a most unsatisfactory situation. Those of us who have read the inspector's reports would have to recognise that progress must be made on prison accommodation. However, we also appreciate that because of the state of the national finances, it will not be possible in the short to medium term to put in place the level of prison accommodation required. In that regard, it is fair to say the Minister's efforts in expanding the community service programme will be beneficial on the accommodation side. I appreciate it is not the primary intention of this Bill but if we manage to reduce the number of people being sentenced for short terms of imprisonment, it will be helpful.
The Minister gave us an indication of the significant cost savings, which are welcome, but the main advantage of community service is that it genuinely gives an offender a second chance and keeps him or her out of the prison system and the crime university which many of the prisons are. If the placement is appropriate, it will allow people to see that there is another route in life - a route of education, work and working within the community.
I take the opportunity to commend the probation officers. They are the unsung heroes of the broader justice system. They work in difficult circumstances against long odds but they have a major impact in helping people to try to chart a way to a more positive future and away from a life of crime. As with many people in the public sector, they do not always get the credit they deserve. They certainly give value for money and whatever resources the probation service requires, we should try to match its needs. Not only does it save money in the long run but it helps to transform the lives of young people, in particular.
I am sure the Bill will be supported by everyone in the House, especially from the point of view of cost and the social benefits to be obtained and in the interests of trying to chart a brighter future and greater opportunities for offenders. It pushes the right buttons in the context of young offenders, in particular. I was interested in what the Minister had to say about the small number of courts or districts in which the community service option appeared to be used. I am not an expert in the field, but I wonder if frequent meetings of those involved in the judicial sphere, at which the range of options available and the penalties that can be imposed are discussed, take place. Is advice given on such matters or is each judge expected to operate on his or her own initiative? It is rather unusual that the majority of community service orders are being handed down in a minority of courts.
This is a matter on which work must be done. From County Cork to County Donegal, there are many communities which would welcome the work that could be done in their localities on foot of community service orders being handed down. Such work would be beneficial on several levels. There is no country other than Ireland in which more community work and greater involvement are required and where more community projects could be initiated. We have the opportunity, through the legislation before the House, to deal with a number of problems and put in place a decent, fair and progressive solution.
It is 30 years since the Minister first brought proposals relating to this matter before the Oireachtas. The Bill represents a significant step forward and I thank him for introducing it. I look forward to its speedy enactment.
I welcome the Minister back to the House. The Bill has the support of my party. It is interesting that there is sometimes an unfair characterisation of the differences between those on the left in politics in Ireland and those on the right on the issue of prisons, how we deal with crime and sentencing and alternatives to imprisonment. It is sometimes perceived to be the case that those on the right favour prison sentences and stricter sentencing, while those of us on the left are seen as advocating a different approach. The Bill which contains good provisions provides an opportunity to engage in a wider and timely debate on sentencing and prison policies in general.
I take the opportunity to do something I have not done since I was elected to the House, namely, commend the Fine Gael, the Labour Party and Fianna Fáil in equal measure for their collective input into the Bill. It is important that legislation of this nature have the support of all political parties in this and the Lower House.
At at time when we are facing up to the reality of an already overcrowded prison system, when prison numbers, unfortunately, are continuing to increase, when the operational procedures and conditions within prisons are suited more towards punishment rather than rehabilitation and when many are of the opinion that we are not getting good value for money, it is important to debate the future of how we deal with the issue of crime. The recent decision by the Minister to review the viability of the Thornton Hall project is to be welcomed. I congratulate him on initiating the review. It would be prudent if it formed part of a wider debate on future policy on sentencing and prisons.
There must be a complete reorientation of the penal system away from prison and towards restorative justice in the community. This is something which many political parties have advocated for a long period. A number of pilot projects relating to restorative justice have been run in certain towns and cities. Many of the joint policing committees across the State are exploring ways by which the concept of community restorative justice can be expanded and better implemented. Community Restorative Justice Ireland which operates in the North works very well. The Minister will be aware that the entire community restorative justice programme in the North was born out of a different scenario when the RUC was not seen as an acceptable police service. However, the programme has, with the support of the PSNI and other agencies, become part of the mainstream. The community restorative justice programme in the North represents a welcome step away from an approach to dealing with certain crime based exclusively within the criminal justice system. Community restorative justice is often used in dealing with what might be termed lesser crimes.
We should remove prison from centre stage and devise more imaginative, humane, compassionate and effective ways to deal with the petty offenders who form the majority of those sent to prison each year. It is often reported in the media that people are sent to prison for very minor offences. While it is necessary to have sanctions in place, it can be wrong to criminalise people at a very young age. It is often the case that much of the anti-social behaviour that occurs in housing estates and communities throughout the State is engaged in by 14, 15 and 16 year olds. In the majority of cases the community response is to seek to have the Garda to crack down on such behaviour and collect information on the activities of the young people involved which is then sent to the anti-social behaviour officers of local authorities. The approach seems to be to collect as much information as possible on the young people to whom I refer in order that they might be dealt with under the criminal justice system. While there is merit in doing this in respect of repeat offenders and in giving them every opportunity to cease their activities, the tendency among communities seems to be to begin at that point rather than to examine ways by which it might be possible to steer the young people concerned away from committing crimes. Senator Paul Bradford referred to the cycle of disadvantage and fact that one could tell, from an early age, that members of certain families would choose a certain path in life. How to break that cycle is a complex matter. One of the most effective ways of proceeding in respect of those who may not have come onto the radar in the past, whose families might not have a history of violence or anti-social behaviour but who, for whatever reason, engage in anti-social acts is by considering alternatives to the criminal justice or prison systems. Community restorative justice offers one option in this regard.
During the past decade there has been a slow but progressive increase in the prison population. There has also been a sharp increase in the average number of persons in custody on a daily basis. This appears to indicate a slow increase in prison numbers exacerbated by an increase in the number of sentences handed down for minor offences. Many do not end up in prison as a result of the overcrowding problem.
Everyone accepts that those who commit crime must be held accountable for their actions. As a result, the relevant sanctions must be in place and the threat of prison must be real. There are those who must be sent to prison as a result of the nature of their crimes. I am sure Members on all sides will agree that many young people have been criminalised, perhaps unnecessarily, and that there was a failure in the past to deal properly with the issue of community restorative justice. We must learn from our mistakes and ensure we move forward with confidence and imagination and begin to do things somewhat differently.
At present, members of the Judiciary are free to disregard community service orders as an alternative to imprisonment. The Minister proposes to change this in the Bill by making it a requirement that such orders be considered as an alternative. I welcome the provisions proposed in this regard.
I do not wish to delay proceedings because I am aware that other Senators may wish to contribute. I commend the Minister for bringing forward the Bill. I was initially reluctant to become my party's spokesperson on justice in the House. If I had been aware of the sheer volume of work involved or the number of Bills the Minister proposed to introduce, I might, perhaps, have made a different choice. I see more of the Minister these days than I do of my wife and family, which is worrying.
I must praise the Minister where it is merited. While I have not supported all of the proposals he has brought before the House, he deserves to be commended for this proposal. I am surprised by his support for some aspects of the Bill. Perhaps there is sometimes an unfair characterisation of those on the political right. If these provisions are anything to go by, there is a genuine political appetite for a different approach. It is an approach which embraces community restorative justice as an alternative penal model, accepts that the use of the stick is not always the best approach and recognises that we must, as best we can, support those who are often themselves victims. That is not an easy position to take when young people are causing difficulties in neighbourhoods. Public representatives are at the coalface in their communities and subjected to strong public pressure. Therefore, it is sometimes difficult for us to argue that we should consider different models, offer support to these individuals and their families and not always look on prison as the best option. I commend the Minister for his departure from past policy on this issue. I am not claiming he has changed his own position, but I welcome the departure from what has been a tendency to deal with these issues solely within the prison context.
I welcome the Minister, Deputy Alan Shatter, although I do so with trepidation, given his indication that he intends to be here more often in the autumn. As Senator David Cullinane observed, those of us who took on the justice brief will be looking forward to an increased workload and an even greater degree of contact with the Minister.
The Bill before us has deservedly received an unqualified welcome from all sides of the House. The Minister outlined the background to the proposals which will apply to any conviction attracting a prison sentence of up to 12 months. This sensible approach marks a departure from the policies of some previous Administrations whose "get tough on crime" approach seemed merely to involve throwing more prison places at the problem without examining the underlying causes of crime and without having regard to alternatives or the purpose of imprisonment.
On any given day there is a much smaller number of inmates in the prison system compared with the numbers being committed to prison every year. The Minister indicated that in 2009, 9,216 persons were given sentences of up to one year - representing 85% of all committals - yet the proportion in custody on a daily basis serving short sentences was only some 15%. This anomaly has been described by a leading Irish criminologist, Dr. Paul O'Mahony, as a paradox of the prison system in Ireland. It arises because we have so many offenders serving short sentences, generally for minor, non-violent offences. There is a question as to what purpose this serves.
Dr. O'Mahony's research shows that prisoners in Mountjoy Prison have, on average, received ten previous custodial sentences, with many undergoing their first period of detention in St. Patrick's Institution, to which Senator Paul Bradford referred as a "university of crime". Unfortunately, it has had a negative effect on many inmates and its closure is long overdue. This was Labour Party policy prior to the general election and its inclusion in the programme for Government is welcome. When is that envisaged to happen? I understand the programme for Government indicated it would take place immediately or as soon as possible. All the international reports on places of detention in Ireland have recommended its closure for many reasons to do with the conditions in it. Another important argument in favour of its closure is that it features in the history of so many prisoners where it seems to serve as the beginning of a cycle of recidivist offending and successive short terms of imprisonment.
I have been a regular visitor to Mountjoy and other prisons in my capacity as a lecturer and criminal lawyer. It is vital that public representatives visit prisons, particularly Mountjoy Prison in which the conditions are appalling. It is worth seeing the cells and the conditions in which inmates are living. There is very little by way of rehabilitation on offer to prisoners in Mountjoy or other prisons throughout the State. The Connect rehabilitation programme which was in place for a period but has since been discontinued showed very positive outcomes for individual prisoners. It worked at a level with prisoners who had difficulties with literacy, anger management, parenting skills and so on. It operated at a different level from the education courses run by the Open University and so on, for which prisoners require a basic level of literacy. Despite the financial crisis, the Minister should consider the provision of funding for some type of rehabilitation project within the prison system. However, it is difficult to engage in that type of rehabilitation where prisoners are committed for short sentences, in which case alternatives to imprisonment are infinitely preferable.
I welcome the Minister's reference to imprisonment as a sanction of last resort. In January, just before the general election, my colleague, the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Pat Rabbitte, and I published a document on penal reform which proposed that this notion of prison as a sanction of last resort should be the guiding principle of penal policy. We observed that the prison population had almost doubled in a decade, with an annual rate of increase of 10%. We pointed to the cost of providing a prison space in Ireland - €79,000 per annum in 2009, according to the Irish Prison Service - giving the State one of the most expensive prison systems in the world. The Minister, Deputy Shatter, has indicated that the cost of community service orders is in the order of 10% to 30% of the cost of a prison sentence. According to our calculations, the average cost of a three-month prison sentence is €18,000, while the average three-month community service order costs €4,000. Therefore, from a cost perspective, as well as from the point of view of engaging in the rehabilitation of individuals, community service orders are a better approach in dealing with minor, non-violent offences.
The latest report of the UN Committee against Torture which was highly critical of some aspects of Irish penal policy recommended that a policy be adopted focusing on the development of alterative non-custodial sanctions, including the enactment of legislation providing that judges be required to consider community service as an alternative to custody. The proposals before us are very much in line with the committee's recommendations. Its recommendations on prison conditions include a proposal that the State eliminate, without delay, the practice of slopping out, a practice about which the Inspector of Prisons has been highly critical in a series of reports, as was his predecessor. In December 2010, in response to a parliamentary question, the previous Minister indicated that 1,003 prisoners out of a total of 43,197 were required to slop out every day. These prisoners have no access to in-cell sanitation and must eat in close proximity to their chamber pot. Moreover, many prisoners are sharing a cell owing to overcrowding in the prison system. It is an inhumane practice which should no longer be tolerated in any Irish prison.
We have had useful debates in this House on the prison system and I hope they will inform the Minister's policy. We spoke earlier about class and crime. The majority of prisoners come from disadvantaged backgrounds and many have mental health difficulties, a huge issue which deserves greater investigation. The issue was highlighted by the appalling murder of Gary Douche which the joint shadow report to the UN Committee against Torture went into in detail. I am grateful to the Irish Penal Reform Trust and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties for its excellent report to the United Nations which outlined many of the problems within the penal system and elsewhere. For a long time there has been a link between disadvantage and crime. Research published in Trinity College Dublin in 1988, entitled Crime and Poverty in Ireland, was the first scientific attempts to examine this. It used data from community health sources on disadvantage and coupled it with District Court records in the Dublin metropolitan district. We found the vast majority of defendants before the District Court were from disadvantaged backgrounds and from the most disadvantaged or deprived areas in Dublin. Even when controlling for the same offence, they were more likely to go to prison than persons from less disadvantaged backgrounds. There are questions about the links between crime and disadvantage and crime and poverty.
There are also questions about overuse of imprisonment and inconsistencies within our sentencing system. The Minister talked about the uneven pattern of community service orders across the country and this is something the Bill will address. There is excellent research by David Riordan in UCC on how community service orders are enforced across Ireland. There is an uneven imposition.
This Bill is welcome because it will reform the practice of imposing community service orders and will ensure, to a much greater extent, that imprisonment is genuinely a sanction of last resort. As an indirect byproduct, it will address serious problems of overcrowding and prison conditions. Ultimately, it is part of a more enlightened and more humane penal policy. I hope some of the forthcoming legislation in the autumn will also be in line with this policy.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. I welcome the Minister and the Bill. In any debate on prisons, I think of the line from the film "The Shawshank Redemption", where the governor of the prisoner stated that all the public wanted when it came to spending on prisons was more guards, more fences and higher walls. At a time of extreme pressure on the public finances, it is interesting to consider the major issue of prison costs. Prison is extremely expensive and the cost of a community service order is about 15% of a prison sentence. The average community service order costs approximately €4,000 compared with €27,000 for a prison sentence. It seems the Minister is motivated by good economic sense as well as good human sense and the two motivations dovetail. This measure makes financial sense and in terms of human dignity and a proper approach to the reform of offenders and creating a more harmonious society we must examine prison as a last resort.
Much has been said about the disconnect between the 85% of those receiving sentences of up to 12 months but when one considers the population serving sentences, only 15% are serving short sentences. The Minister is correct to warn us off thinking this might be a panacea for the problem of overcrowding in prisons. There has not been a tradition of a large prison population in this country, unlike the absurd situation in the United States where the prison population approaches 2.5 million people or 1% of the population. We do have an issue in that our prison population has been rising and has doubled over the past decade. Initiatives such as the Fines Act, which most people welcomed as a more balanced and humane approach in the determination and collection of fines, recognising that alternatives to imprisonment including community service were appropriate in the event of a failure to recover a fine or its value in seized goods. It was ridiculous to think about putting people into prison for non-payment of fines, especially when one considers the reality that those who do not pay fines are often those on lower incomes. I welcome any Bill that builds on the approach that prison should be a last resort. The idea that society will be made safer by putting more and more people into prison defies logic.
As a society, we must scrutinise our motivation for putting individuals in prison. Do we have a criminal justice system designed to punish or rehabilitate? One can consider four functions of prison - to punish, to prevent crime for a temporary period while one is in prison, to deter others and to rehabilitate and reform people without losing faith in the capacity of society to change people for the better. Generally, changing people starts with showing them respect. That is why it is still relevant for us to consider the practice of slopping out, not just as some airy fairy human rights or civil rights concern but for the message it sends out when we treat people in this way and dehumanise people in our prison system. How can we possibly be surprised that they do not emerge reformed and with a more healthy view of their place in society? We must look seriously at the cause of rehabilitation. It is not just a soft, liberal, brainless cause and it is for people of right, left and centre.
If a person has committed a serious crime and represents a danger to others, it is right and just that they are incarcerated but when the court is of the opinion that the danger does not exist, a more creative approach is warranted. We legislate to create effective deterrents to certain behaviours, as seen in the Criminal Justice Bill dealing with white collar crime today. We must focus on the fact that, particularly for young people on short sentences, prisons are universities of crime. People go in for relatively minor offences and come out affected by drugs and having learned the tricks of the trade from more hardened people in prison. While the Minister did not refer to that in his speech, it is in the background when we consider the need to get away from prison as the primary model. Any measure to avoid jailing individuals for comparatively minor offences at the discretion of the court is to be welcomed when set against the negative cost implications for incarceration in addition to the problems arising from drugs and the example people acquire during their time in prison.
I have some suggestions relating to the projects undertaken by those with community service orders. The Minister referred to a community service graffiti removal project. He referred to south County Dublin rather than Dublin South because he did not want to give the impression that people on community service orders were taking down the Minister's election posters. That is one instance of the significant number of community service projects involving environmental improvement programmes, such as graffiti removal, picking up litter and gardening.
I am tempted to say that the use of a mobile phone in the Parliament should be something that attracts a sanction such as a community service order from the relevant body but I will desist. A greater sense of job satisfaction can be developed when something more than mere physical labour is involved and the Minister may consider an example from Britain, the Family Action in Rogerfield and Easterhouse, FARE, project in Glasgow. In 1987, a few residents of Easterhouse, a socio-economically deprived area six miles east of Glasgow, took over an abandoned shop as a club for unemployed youngsters. Over the following 21 years the scheme has relocated three times and built an increasingly secure and substantial funding stream. Rather than asking offenders to paint walls and clean rubbish, is it better to invite them to invest their time in aiding community projects in a more meaningful and long-term manner that forms links with society and creates a sense of inclusion and emotional investment in the community in which they live? I am aware that such involvement may not be suitable for all offenders but it should be considered. The Minister mentioned partnerships formed with tidy towns groups and the partnership between the Probation Service and the Monaghan tidy towns committee to utilise persons in community services is a good example of what is possible. This will require resources and engagement with skilled personnel but it is the way to go. If we are to honour human dignity, it cannot be a matter of keeping them out of prison by putting them doing some work. Proper engagement with individuals' needs and attitudes requires us to take an approach that examines their God-given gifts and see if there is some way they can be deployed. That puts us on the road to reforming people because people sense they are being respected when someone is trying to identify their gifts and talents and use them. It brings people more satisfaction.
In that context, I commend the comments of Senator Cullinane on restorative justice.
I am aware there have been some projects in this area but it is an area that needs exploration. Restorative justice, over and above community service, brings the person, where possible, into contact with those who have suffered as a result of their actions. That puts one firmly on the road to rehabilitation.
In returning to the fair project I mentioned the approach used in Scotland. It is one in which voluntary bodies and volunteers have greater control over services and the individuals assigned to help out. That approach, which seeks to support local community groups and valuable projects, merits greater consideration. It is key to involve the community in any such partnership with the Probation Service. We will get greater buy-in, and that will lead to more successful outcomes.
I was intrigued by what the Minister said, and I may have missed it in his off-script comments, about the low capacity utilisation identified by the value for money review. If I am correct he stated that 33% of the potential for community service is taken up and he made the point that this comes from the fact that a very small number of courts are responsible for the majority of orders made. The Minister gave various statistics indicating that approximately 29 out of 108 courts appointed accounted for about 80% of the total number of community service orders. What is going wrong in that regard? Is it that particular judges are reluctant to take it on? Does that stem from right wing views on community service in that they believe they should all be incarcerated and punished or is it that there is not a tradition of using it in that particular area? I would welcome some clarity on that because the Minister introduced some stark statistics in that regard and they require some background from which we would all benefit and for which we would all be grateful.
Any programme we develop must tackle the major issues in the most socially deprived and disadvantaged areas in our country. One of the characteristics of such areas is the lack of buy-in by the population into the society in which they live. In large measure, people who do not feel part of the mainstream of Irish society believe they are always at a disadvantage and even though the State often invests an enormous amount of resources in those areas, the reality is often that everything is decided for the population, and the people have very little input into decisions such as the design of houses and estates and the provision of community facilities and services.
If we are interested in reducing crime we would be better engaged in looking at the social phenomena behind the crime rather than thinking that by simply locking people up we will achieve results. I hope that future community services projects will take creative approaches to involving offenders in the community in a meaningful way.
I again congratulate the Minister on bringing forward this Bill. I hope it will yield positive fruit in terms of helping to reduce the amount of reoffending. He mentioned in his contribution that a significant number of people given short sentences subsequently reoffend and therefore it is clear the Minister is trying to achieve many laudable objectives in terms of reducing the expenditure, the high expense dimension of prison. He is seeking to take people out of the university of crime and I hope and believe he is also trying to honour human dignity in recognising that there is a category of people in our society whom prison does not serve well in terms of maximising their ability to be reformed and to become more productive and positive members of society. On that basis I commend the Bill to the House and thank the Minister for bringing it forward.
I welcome the Minister to the House and thank him for bringing forward this legislation. Many of the issues I wanted to raise have been mentioned but I will refer to one or two issues, one of which concerns my experience of dealing with young people.
Many years ago I had the privilege of being invited onto a committee on the north side of Cork city which was deciding what to do about the problem of young people dropping out of school. Those young people were going down the criminal road where eventually they would end up in St. Patrick's Institution and then prison in the long term. One of the actions taken involved working with the local gardaí and the setting up a retraining facility where we would have 50 people retraining at any one time, all of whom had dropped out of school. That comes back to what Senator Cullinane said earlier about taking action at an earlier stage.
It was interesting that the large number of people we had retraining had major problems with literacy and numeracy. We gave them a choice of courses to take up and in order to get them used to the idea of turning up every morning, each was given a clock-in card. They had to clock in every morning and if they did not clock in on time, the allowance given to them at the end of the week was reduced accordingly.
A number of years later we decided to research those people who had passed through the facility and it was interesting to find that the vast majority of them were in full-time work and had not become involved in crime. That research work was done by a former member of the Sinn Féin Party who was brought on board to do it. It gave us a clear indication that by working together we could steer people in the right direction rather than adopting the attitude of allowing the problem continue without taking decisive action. We could get them back into the education system and give them a skill to allow them move on to jobs. In addition to providing training we also got them out into the workplace, initially for two weeks at a time, and then brought them back into the training facility. At a later stage we sent them back into the workplace for four weeks and eventually got them into full-time employment.
I welcome this Bill because the community service area is the way forward. Unfortunately, once people are sent to prison or to St. Patrick's Institution it takes them a long time to come out of those institutions. The Bill is welcome in that regard.
As someone who has practised in the District Court from time to time, although my role in the District Court was of a minor nature in that criminal law would not have been my main area, I was surprised by the small number of courts that use the community service order. I welcome the provision in section 3, paragraphs (a) and (b), which puts the obligation on the District Court judge to consider the proposition of the community service order where the sentence is likely to be 12 months or less. If the sentence is more than 12 months the judge has the option of considering it also. It is a welcome development and something that is long overdue.
We must also consider how we can assist those in the prison system in terms of not getting involved in the crime scene soon after leaving prison. In the mid-1990s there was a project in Cork where 20 people in prison were taken on an education programme while their partners, who were not in prison, joined an education programme of a different nature. It was an attempt to get the message across about involving people in the education system. It was interesting that of the 20 who did the programme, 12 went back to full-time education when they left prison. In terms of the prison system we must encourage people and tell them there is a different road available when they leave prison. We must do everything possible to give them every opportunity to take that right road.
Regarding the District Court and other courts, we must get the message across that many people who end up in the criminal system do not want to be in it and would do everything possible to get out of it but looking at the figures on the use of the community service order in the past, I am not sure whether our justice system is getting that message. We must do everything possible in that regard. We will be in government for the next five years and it is important that, by the end of that period, there will be a different attitude to dealing with this matter. The prison population has continued to grow.
My concern over the implementation of the legislation is based on the number of people who leave prison a long time before they have served their full sentences. I understand allowances are made because of overcrowding in prisons. Where offenders are given an option of six months in prison or completing a community service order, they realise they may be released within a short period if they choose prison and that they must make a greater commitment if they choose the order. It is important that those who are sentenced to six or 12 months in prison on refusing a community service order serve their sentences in full. While remission for good behaviour should continue, no prisoner should be released earlier than this would allow. If they are released too early, the concept of community service orders falls asunder. The legislation is welcome and deserves the full support of the House. I am delighted that all groups and parties in the House are supporting it.
It is well worth spending money to make further resources available to the probation and welfare service. Imprisonment has not worked and will not work and we should try to do everything possible to ensure the alternatives available through community service orders are chosen. I thank the Minister for introducing this legislation. I hope it will be implemented at a very early date.
I welcome the Minister to the House. I very much welcome the legislation, which Members strongly support and wish to see implemented at the earliest opportunity. We are all very much aware of the ludicrous circumstances in which young people who are given custodial sentences by the District Court of three, six or nine months - it is very often the same offenders week after week - are released onto the streets a few days later. I was made aware of circumstances last week in which a young person sentenced to six months in Castlerea was asked the day after being sentenced if he could organise transport home. He stated he had no way of getting back to Ballinasloe and I understand he was put on a train to Athlone, from where a taxi took him to Ballinasloe, at an enormous cost to the State.
This Bill, if it achieves nothing else, will certainly save the State money. It is progressive. We want to divert offenders away from prison such that they will retain ties with family, friends and community through community service. This benefits the community. I very much welcome the fact that the Minister referred very positively in his speech to the fine work done during the bad flooding in Ballinasloe in 2009 by young offenders who were being rehabilitated at a local centre in the town.
I invite the Minister to attend, in the coming weeks, the opening of Canal House, a fine facility in Ballinasloe that is doing amazing work with young offenders. It has a very high success rate in ensuring young people do not reoffend. The project involves a partnership between the Probation Service, the Department of Justice and Equality and the VEC. Young people are being educated and, in many cases, given second-chance education. They are also trained in skills in which they have a particular interest and they are treated extremely well. Many of the young offenders come from seriously disadvantaged backgrounds. In very many cases, the education system has failed them badly. They just did not fit in at the local secondary school. They may have emerged from primary school with very poor literacy skills and certainly could not hack it in mainstream secondary schools. Centres such as Canal House and Youthreach facilities are certainly giving the young people concerned a second opportunity.
I commend the Minister on this legislation. As the Judiciary is encouraged to implement it and use community service orders much more frequently than has been the case, there will be an enormous benefit for the community. We must convince local communities that this legislation is the way to proceed.
I agree with previous speakers who said many young offenders who serve custodial sentences later turn out to be much more serious offenders. We could succeed if we issued community service orders to keep offenders in their communities and ensure they are involved in meaningful projects, such as the one in South County Dublin or the many fine community projects in every town and village. The supervision of the schemes will be a key factor, as will attendance by those subject to the community service orders.
The legislation presents a way forward and I commend the Minister on bringing it to fruition. It is encouraging that all Members of the Seanad support it. I commend the previous Minister on the work he did on framing it. All of us involved in communities realise there is good in every young person provided he is given a fair chance. All public representatives want to ensure young people who step out of line once or twice are given every opportunity and a chance to obtain an education and training. I hope we will have a better and safer society as a result. I thank the Minister for bringing the Bill to the House. I am more than happy to support it.
I thank all the Senators who spoke. It is a short but important Bill and support therefor is welcome. I join those who praised the Probation Service. A substantial amount of very good work is done by the service, which gets very little public acclaim for it. Last autumn, prior to my coming into government, I had meetings with the head of the Probation Service to explore this issue and to ensure there is capacity within the service to extend the use of community service orders. I was assured there is such capacity.
Some Senators commented on the statistical information I gave regarding the courts. All I can say about this is that it seems some judges are utilising the community service order scheme to a far greater extent than others. At the end of the day, judges have discretion with regard to sentencing. They have a constitutional right to exercise their discretion but the intent of the Bill is to ensure that before any judge considering imposing a sentence of less than 12 months does so, he or she first considers the appropriateness of community service. To consider the appropriateness of community service, it will be necessary to ascertain whether the convicted person is willing to undertake such service and, more often than not, to have a report from the Probation Service. I hope that where the probation service sets out that the individual concerned is appropriate for community service the community service option will be preferred over the imprisonment option unless the background circumstances of a conviction indicate that for the protection of the community the nature of the offence warrants a prison sentence.
It is important to look at statistics in this regard. When I came into office I had considerable concern that there had been an inadequate approach by previous Governments in addressing the shortage of prison spaces and ensuring that the integrity of our criminal justice system and the administration of justice was upheld. I had particular concern about the number of prisoners on temporary release. Some prisoners are on temporary release for very good reasons, and we will always have some prisoners on temporary release, but there is a cohort of prisoners who are on temporary release, to whom Senator Mullins referred a few moments ago, for no reason other than a shortage of prison spaces.
A particularly interesting statistic for Members of the House are the numbers on Friday, 22 July, when I looked at where we stood. On that date, a total of 5,479 prisoners were in the system. This does not mean they were in jail, it means they were in the system and prospectively should have been in prison. The number on temporary release due to cell incapacity was 612. These are not individuals who were entitled to remission; these are individuals who were released for no reason other than that we have a serious shortage of prison spaces. As of 22 July 2011 we had what is known as "bed capacity" in our prisons of 4,510. This means the entire prison infrastructure was able to provide sleeping accommodation for 4,510. This is within a cell structure that, based on the perception of the Inspector of Prisons, should house less than 4,000 prisoners. In some instances, there were two prisoners to a cell designed for only one prisoner and, in some instances, there were three to a cell.
We have a problem in that at present our prisons are not capable of accommodating the number of prisoners who are being sentenced to prison terms. There will be some change in this. Additional places will become available in the not too distant future, for example in the Midlands prison. We need to ensure that where people are sentenced to terms of imprisonment they truly serve those terms of imprisonment and that we do not have the type of situation described by Senator Mullins whereby someone spends a day or two in prison and then is simply released. They are released usually because there is a perception by the prison governor that they do not pose a threat to the community and there is a need to create an extra space for another sentenced person for whom a period in prison is necessary in the public interest.
I am concerned that if those 612 individuals, to whom I referred as being on temporary release without reaching remission, had been sentenced to community service instead of a prison term, they would have not occupied a cell which would have been saving to the taxpayer; they would have paid back the community for the offence they committed at far less cost to the community and to its benefit; and we would be upholding the integrity of the criminal justice system. It is very important that our Judiciary in exercising its sentencing discretion understands the limits of the capacities in our prisons and understands the alternative options that are available to imprisonment and utilises them in the interests of the community and in the interests of ensuring the integrity of the criminal justice system is upheld.
I was interested in the contributions made by a number of Senators who spoke about the alternatives to imprisonment. There is a whole range of alternatives which we should use, some of which have started to be used and others are very much at an experimental stage. A great deal more can be done in the area of restorative justice. I am looking at developments of this nature in the Department. There were some pilot schemes in this area and its usage could be greatly expanded. There is the possibility of using a form of sentencing for certain types of prisoners that is used elsewhere, whereby the sentence is in effect that they are confined to their homes at night and there is electronic monitoring to ensure they comply with this. If they are in employment or education it allows them to continue.
I am also looking at another method of using the community service scheme where we have prisoners held in prison for some years who are of good behaviour and pose no threat to the community but have not yet reached the stage where based on the period of remission they are entitled to release. We are looking at a pilot scheme of releasing some of these prisoners, subject to the condition and on agreement that they would do community service. This evening, we have been speaking about community service as an alternative to imprisonment. There may be a role community service can play with regard to facilitating the release from prison of some individuals who pose no threat to a community and whose contribution by way of community service would be to the greater good of the community than their remaining in prison and, engaging in community service may be of benefit to them in refocusing them in the context of their release.
I regret that Senator Cullinane has departed. I appreciate that it has been a long day.
There we go. We will not mention that he is absent then.
I was interested in his categorisation of the joining together of the political right and the political left. I have never regarded myself as either left or right-----
-----although it is a good idea when one is walking to know whether one is walking to the left or right. I am taken by people who are hung up on old-fashioned political caricatures and ideologies. From my perspective, I always regarded Sinn Féin as significantly to the right in the context of some of the activities in which it engaged. In the context of some of the political stances it still takes to this day I regard it as significantly to the right of politics in an international sense as well as in a domestic sense. In the context of dealing with issues of this nature, what we need is to have a coherent and consistent approach to sentencing policy to deal with those who are convicted offenders and to approach matters on the basis of looking at all the various options available in the interests of the community, reducing the level of recidivism, and ensuring in so far as anyone can that those who leave prison have perhaps some opportunity of leading a life that does not involve re-offending. It is my intention as we develop our criminal justice system that we take very substantial steps along this route.
I was interested in Senator Mullins's reference to the project in Glasgow. I have the view that we need to look at various types of community service and how we might facilitate people who have left prison getting employment experience as opposed to simply engaging in environmental works, and it could be interesting to give some consideration to the type of projects taking place in Glasgow. It is a very interesting suggestion.
I take what Senator Colm Burke said extremely seriously. One of the defects at present in our prison system is that because of the overcrowding and limited facilities we still do not provide sufficient education opportunities for people in our prisons, many of whom come from deprived communities and have limited education and basic literacy difficulties. If they are going to have a real opportunity in life, these are issues we need to address. As one Senator mentioned, although he was not supporting it, it is not about locking people up for a period, throwing away the key and then releasing them and expecting their world to change. One of the difficulties is when those sentenced to terms of imprisonment have lived in deprived communities, or in communities, for example, where crime right be rife or there might be gangs, are released, they all too frequently find themselves back in the same environment and have little chance of getting away from a life of reoffending and imprisonment. These are all issues to which we need to give careful consideration in the public interest and in the context of how we do things differently.
I do not want to make exaggerated claims regarding this short Bill which I hope is a smart Bill. I also hope, when enacted, it will be applied by the Judiciary in a manner that ensures if we review matters in a year, there will have been a substantial increase in the use of community service orders and those sentenced to imprisonment deserve to serve such terms. There is not an awful lot to be gained by sentencing people to three or four weeks in prison and much more would be gained by sentencing such individuals to community service to the benefit of the community.
I thank Members for their contributions and for their support for the Bill. Members of both Houses had constructive suggestions to make and I am optimistic about the changes we can make to the manner in which we deal with offenders on a basis that will receive support from all sides of both Houses and which will allow us, hopefully, to look back in two or three years and say real change and a real change has been effected in the manner in which we deal with criminal justice issues.