Wednesday, 13 February 2019
Criminal Justice (Rehabilitative Periods) Bill 2018: Second Stage
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I thank the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, for his presence. I am extraordinarily proud to be able to introduce the Bill which will expand and make fairer access to spent convictions. I thank my colleagues in the Civil Engagement group for facilitating the debate; the Office of the Parliamentary Legal Adviser and Ms Sinead Dullaghan for their assistance in the drafting of the Bill; Fiona, Deirdre and everyone involved in the Irish Penal Reform Trust for their Trojan work in forming the policy perspective and all their support in the run-up to the debate, including at the briefing on the Bill in Leinster House yesterday; and Seb McAteer in my office who I can safely say is now an expert on spent convictions for stepping into the breach this week. As I am quite unwell, he had a week of briefings and lobbying to do on my behalf. I thank the Minister and his officials in the Department of Justice and Equality for engaging constructively with us on the Bill and the indication that the Government will not oppose it on Second Stage, for which I am deeply grateful.
At its core, the Bill is a reflection of my personal belief that people have the capacity to change, that in most cases they deserve a second chance and that in almost all cases a person is not as bad as the worst thing he or she has done. A person may find himself or herself on the wrong side of the law for many reasons such as exercising bad judgment, suffering from addiction, recovering from a traumatic event or because the key interventions required to keep him or her out of criminality were never available. Therefore, a person who ends up committing and being convicted of a minor crime should always be afforded the chance to leave the offending behaviour in the past and be offered some path to rehabilitation.The State has a responsibility and duty to provide that path. It is a way for the individual to be supported and incentivised to change his or her behaviour and vindicate his or her right to a second chance in life, while also protecting the public interest and public safety. This pathway can be provided through fair access to spent convictions. A spent conviction, sometimes referred to as an expungement, is a conviction for a minor offence that, when certain criteria are met and after the passage of a set period of time - known as the rehabilitative period - becomes spent and does not have to be disclosed when returning to education, applying for a job or being Garda vetted. The need for a spent conviction regime is rooted in the principles of rehabilitative justice and the generally accepted principle that individuals deserve a second chance and the opportunity to move on without the inevitable negative effect involved in disclosing a criminal conviction. This is especially true for young people, on whose life prospects a criminal conviction can have a disproportionate impact. It is commonly accepted that society benefits greatly from the reintegration and rehabilitation of those with a conviction, while reducing recidivism. A spent convictions regime should have these principles at its core.
I have made no secret of the fact that I am an ex-offender. Some of that offending led me to the Children's Court and the District Court. I am an ex-offender, but I am much more than my criminal record. I am lucky that, before I turned 18, I had an opportunity to exit criminality and build a new life based on education and progression. I will never forget the feeling of filling out Garda vetting forms for some of my first jobs in the addiction sector. I always dreaded hearing that an employer wanted to offer me a job pending Garda vetting. I wondered whether I should have put my record down on an application form or taken the chance that my convictions would no longer be on my record. I wondered whether to go to my potential employer and bare all. I am an ex-offender. However, I was also a hard working drugs worker, with a passion and drive for the job I was doing, which I felt was borne from the experiences I had, the mistakes I made and the lessons I learned, including the convictions I received. I know I was good at my job, and that I am luckier than most because my employers were understanding and gave me the job regardless of and despite my convictions. I am an ex-offender, but I am now also a legislator. I might very easily not be standing here to put this legislation forward if my criminal record had stood in the way.
In my experience as a drugs worker, and from working with people with convictions, I have seen at first hand how criminal records for minor offences have had a major impact on people's lives. How many nurses, teachers, social workers, counsellors and more have we lost as a society by continuing to punish people long after they were convicted of a crime? Since launching this Bill, I have been inundated with emails and letters, detailing story after story of people who, unlike me, have had careers, education and their lives curtailed by the limited application of spent convictions legislation in Ireland. Two young men, now in their late 20s, did not make it into the Army because of minor offences committed in their teens. Several young women have had their education effectively brought to an end by not being able to enter social work placements. One man who contacted me spent 14 years in recovery from drug addiction and has reached a PhD level of education, but cannot get employment due to the inflexibility regarding the number of convictions that can currently be spent. There are hundreds and hundreds of cases of people who no longer offend but who cannot get on with their lives due to a restrictive spent convictions regime. Behind every single one of those convictions is a lifetime's worth of pain, trauma and unfulfilled potential caused by not being able to leave an indiscretion in the past. By not offering people a fair chance and opportunity to have convictions spent, we are not only encouraging recidivism and re-offending, but losing out on some of our best assets in many fields. There are so many professions that benefit hugely from the experience of people who have had a different route through life, be it someone who experienced social disadvantage, addiction, youth crime or poverty. Whatever the reason that led a person to a conviction, people have much to offer society and we are depriving ourselves of the wealth of their experience in areas in which that experience would be most useful.
If someone is convicted of a crime, goes to prison, gets out and continues to be discriminated against as he or she tries to re-enter the workforce or access education, has his or her punishment really ended? When can we say his or her punishment will end? Will it ever end? Spent convictions offer a chance to leave behind the stigma inherent in a conviction and offer people hope that, even after a conviction and time in prison, if they stay on the straight and narrow for a set period of time they will be rewarded by being legally empowered to leave the stigma in their past. We are ultimately talking about making it a little fairer and easier to access that second chance.
How do we propose to do that? Ireland has had a form of spent convictions since the passage of the Criminal Justice (Spent Convictions and Certain Disclosures) Act 2016, but it is limited, both in practice and in comparison with other European countries. We all accept the need to get the balance right between protecting the public interest and affording the individual in question a real second chance. Our current law, however, does not get this balance right. It is not fair or proportionate, and it is not working.
We have proposed four substantive changes to the 2016 Act to broaden access to spent convictions so that more people can avail of its provisions. The changes also seek to make access to them fairer and more responsive to the circumstances of the individual. In the current Act, the maximum length of a custodial sentence that can become spent is 12 months or less, and for non-custodial sentences the upper limit is 24 months or less. This compares very poorly with other European and common law countries. In Northern Ireland the upper limit is a 30 month custodial sentence, and in England and Wales it is 48 months. We are proposing that the limit here be increased to 24 months for a custodial sentence and to 48 months for non-custodial sentences.
The 2016 Act also sets the rehabilitative period after which a conviction becomes spent at a blanket seven years, without distinction to the nature of the sentence and with no proportionality between the length of the sentence and the subsequent rehabilitative period. Through the two rehabilitative period tables in the Schedule to the Bill, the rehabilitative period before the conviction becomes spent would be made proportional to the length of the sentence.
The current Act has a single conviction limit, so only one conviction can ever become spent. If one has two convictions, neither can become spent. We suggest removing the single conviction limit by increasing the number of eligible convictions from one to two.
The Act also contains no recognition of the disproportionate impact of a conviction on the prospects of a young person, and his or her resulting rehabilitative needs. We are therefore proposing to give young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 an additional opportunity to have convictions spent and for proportionally shorter rehabilitative periods.
Those are the provisions of the Bill. They are more restrictive than I would like, but they are a start. I ask colleagues to support the Bill. The mechanisms the State puts in place to support former offenders to re-enter the workforce, education and society are important markers of our social values and attitudes towards people who have made mistakes in the past. This Bill would move us closer towards respecting the innate capacity for change people have through rehabilitative policies and is worthy of our support. I commend it to the House.
I second the Bill.
I welcome the Minister to the Chamber for this important debate. This is excellent, progressive and badly needed legislation, which could change lives for the better. I strongly commend Senator Ruane, along with Seb and her team, on bringing it before the House. I was delighted to co-sign the Bill and proud to second it today. I urge everyone in the House to give it their full support.
As Senator Ruane has outlined, this is a very modest Bill. The proposals are not radical, but offer a small but meaningful step forward on how we deal with convictions. I would love to see a consensus in this Chamber that we could go further, and I know that Senator Ruane would too, but at a minimum we should be able to support the sensible, humane, proportional system for spent convictions outlined in the Bill. It is a small extension of current practice, but it could really change people's lives.The whole basis of the system is rooted in the idea that after a certain period of time, people deserve a second chance and the opportunity to turn their lives around. We are dealing with the most basic principles of rehabilitative justice. If we believe in rehabilitation, we need to think seriously about how that works in practice. The current system is a blunt, unjust instrument which has a massively negative impact on individuals, their families and, importantly, their wider community and society. This broader social impact is very important. Ultimately, everyone benefits from a proper system of spent convictions and ensuring that people have a pathway to turn their lives around. If we keep a decades old conviction hanging over someone and if we cut off their capacity to work or access education, it is obviously more likely they will return to crime or offending behaviour. It is important we give people a chance. The capacity to spend certain convictions after a period is vital in reducing recidivism and benefits both the individual and wider society.
We also need to be clear about the class aspect to all of this. Under the current system, for example, there is no limit on the number of minor motoring offences that can become spent but this does not apply to other types of offences which are limited to one. This system can benefit someone with multiple speeding convictions, which can put lives at risk, but not someone who has two shoplifting convictions. This means that a mother who twice stole food for her children can be made to carry those convictions for the rest of her life but a motorist has the chance to move on. The injustice of this should be obvious, particularly when we consider the impact of addiction and poverty, to which Senator Ruane referred. I have worked in the areas of addiction and poverty and I have spoken in this House many times, particularly about the charitable organisation I founded, the RISE Foundation.
All of this is interlinked. If one reads the testimony gathered by the Irish Penal Reform Trust and other organisations, again and again one sees people who have made mistakes earlier in life struggling with poverty, addiction and homelessness. They are never able to get out from under it and it follows them forever. Who benefits from a system like this? As one man put it, people can change their lives around if given the opportunity without a 15 year old conviction that keeps rearing its head every time they try to better themselves. It is not just about the barriers to, for example, employment and education. It also matters because, as that man also said, people carry the shame and guilt around with them for life. Shame and guilt can be very crippling. I remember when, as a therapist with the RISE Foundation, I worked with a group of young women in the women's prison. My experience of listening to those women was life changing. Many of them spoke about how they were abused as children, whether sexually, physically or emotionally, and how they went on then to act out, whether through addiction or shoplifting. All those women were amazing and they deserve a chance of a new life.
I spoke very openly in the media about my own recovery from addiction. I have no shame in that thankfully but there was a time in my life when I was crippled with shame. It is the worst feeling in the world and it stops one from moving forward. If we have a system that continues to put that shame on us, it is impossible to move forward.
Change is urgently needed. Not too long ago, one man wrote to me describing his experiences. He had a gambling addiction, stole money, lost it and tried to chase those losses. He ended up turning himself in, being convicted and then completely turning his life around. He attended counselling, did further education, got a job outside the country and is now married with young children. He wants to return home and for his children, as they grow up, to see their grandparents but, unfortunately, he cannot do so because his convictions from decades ago prevent him from getting work or insurance in Ireland. This is a man who made a mistake, atoned for it, turned his life around and now wants to make a place for himself in society and contribute but just cannot get out from underneath these convictions. As he said, his addiction took so much away from him and is now doing the same to his wife and children. It is really heartbreaking and it is totally wrong.
There is a clear need for reform. The current Act was passed in 2016. During the debates on that legislation, Deputies and Senators criticised it for not going far enough. At the time, they were told we needed to tread carefully because this was the first time a spent conviction system had been introduced in Ireland. Three years on, it is definitely time for us to consider whether the Act is achieving its aims. Experience would show us that it most definitely is not.
This Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice and Equality, of which I am a member, considered this issue at length last year. We published a wide-ranging review of penal reform and sentencing laws. I will refer directly to our conclusions on this issue. On a cross-party basis, we agreed that:
The issue of spent convictions must be examined urgently. Offenders should be afforded a second chance, and should not have to carry the stigma and negative consequences of a criminal record for the rest of their lives if they have moved away from offending behaviour.
The report describes the current Act as "extremely limited in its application" and notes that the "current position does not take into account in any way the circumstances that may have contributed to a person's offending behaviour at the time, which could have been youth, addiction, poverty or any range of other circumstances." It notes the "generous provision for offences committed by people when they are aged 18 or younger" and recommends that these provisions "be extended up to the age of 24 at a minimum." I sincerely thank Senator Ruane for taking the initiative and responding to the calls from the committee, in particular its recommendations on a specific system to deal with young people. Such a system is provided for in the Bill and I believe it is one of its strongest aspects. Youth organisations and services for young people have been arguing for years that we must be able to account for the fact that a minor criminal conviction earned as a teenager can radically hinder a young person's chances at building a life.
Ireland's current system has an identical rule and the weight of legal evidence is such that should the Oireachtas fail to act on this, I am sure the current system will be successfully challenged in the courts. On that basis, the proposals in this Bill are not only desirable but necessary. We should not wait for a lengthy, expensive court case to change this unjust system. We should act now and this Bill is the perfect chance to do that.
Like Senator Black, I very much commend Senator Ruane on bringing forward this critical legislation to allow people to get on with their lives and make the contributions to society that Senator Ruane has personally demonstrated can happen when people get a second chance in life. I am pleased the Government is not opposing the passage of this Bill on Second Stage and that it will be given due, meaningful and proper consideration by all sides of the political divide. That is as it should be. I am also pleased the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, is taking this Bill on behalf of the Government.
I apologise for the confusion. We had the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, in the House an hour ago. I am delighted the Minister, Deputy Flanagan is in the House to take this legislation on behalf of the Government. I have spoken to the Minister about restorative justice, community courts and the principle of spent and expunged convictions. I have taken account of the work that has taken place and I note what has been said about the first spent convictions legislation that was passed three years ago. I am on record as stating at the time that it did not go far enough. I genuinely believed that at the time. As an extension of that, I believe this legislation is timely. Other people took a different view from me on the previous legislation and a period of time was needed for it to bed down and to see how it would work. I was convinced that my view at that stage was correct and during the intervening period of more than 36 months, that view has been confirmed.
I brought forward a Private Members' Bill on restorative justice during the previous term. I had seen what good work had been done in terms of restorative justice in Tallaght, south Dublin and north Tipperary under a former judge, the late Michael Reilly.People who engaged with restorative justice programmes were 65% to 70% less likely to re-offend. This proves that when the system engages with people, and treats them with respect and dignity, it cascades back in a very significant way. There are, unfortunately, always those cases where that does not happen and perhaps those situations require an even more intensive intervention to see if it can happen.
I also brought forward a Private Members' motion on community courts based on what had happened in New York. Community courts there, especially in the Times Square area, have proven to be extremely successful. It shows what can happen when all the State agencies are brought together in a spirit of assistance as opposed to a spirit of legality. The success of the community courts system in other parts of the world demonstrates that it could work in Dublin. In the Minister's own good time, perhaps at a later date, he might let us know how the proposed pilot project of a community court for the centre of Dublin city is progressing. I have spoken to the Minister about this and I am aware that he has a keen interest in it. This legislation would be in that vein, giving people a second chance with the whole restorative community embracing spirit. This legislation is an incremental step in the right direction.
I put it to the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, that if the Government has particular concerns they can be discussed on Committee Stage. I have no doubt that there is a lot of support within the Fine Gael Parliamentary Party for what this Bill is trying to achieve, and for seeing the Bill passed into law, which is what we in the Seanad ultimately want to do. We would hope that our colleagues in Dáil Éireann would then bring it forward from there. At this initial stage of the Bill I commend Senator Ruane and I assure her of my personal support in what she hopes to achieve. Where I can influence or articulate a viewpoint with regard to a narrative I would be very happy to do so.
I commend Senator Ruane and her team for bringing before the House this excellent proposed legislation. Senator Ruane outlined in very clear and concise terms why this legislation is absolutely needed. It is a human rights issue and a compassionate piece of legislation. Irish people are known to be a compassionate people. We all have had second chances in our lives in one form or another. It is only right and proper that people who have committed crimes in certain circumstances are given that second chance and can move on with their life. Nobody chooses a life of crime but some people are forced into a life of crime due to addiction - as Senator Black outlined - or through poverty, abuse and certain circumstances. People need to be allowed to move on from that. It not only benefits the person, it also benefits the person's family, community and wider society. Fianna Fáil supports the Bill. We tabled a number of amendments to the 2016 Act that are similar to what is contained in this Bill. At the time the Government did not take those amendments. I was very happy to hear Senator Conway's contribution tonight and hopefully he can bring the party along to accept, more or less, what has been presented to us by Senator Ruane.
I thank the Senator for bringing this excellent Bill to the House and for putting such time and effort into it. She has outlined why such legislation is ultimately needed by society. It will be excellent legislation and I give her Fianna Fáil's support.
I thank the Minister for that and I welcome him back to the House. I thank Senator Ruane and her team for the Bill. I listened to that moving and personal story. I pay tribute to the Senator because time again she brings her personal story and experience to the House. I genuinely believe that we all have our own personal stories but perhaps some of us do not speak of them with such ease as others do. Senator Ruane, however, has used her personal life experiences in her parliamentary work. This is what makes it more moving, real and engaging. This is why she has been such a success here. I want to acknowledge that and pay tribute to the Senator for that.
The Senator spoke of being an offender, in her own words, but now she is a legislator. She has travelled the road and has experienced at first-hand how a second chance and a new beginning allows a person new opportunities in his or her life. Senator Ruane is a living example of that. What better words to convince me and other Senators in the House that this is the right track to go.
The Government is not opposing the Bill at this stage. I believe the Bill needs to be scrutinised in some detail, which is good, and it is our job and function to do that in the Seanad. I pay special tribute to the Irish Penal Reform Trust for its work on this issue. As Senator Ruane has said, a spent conviction gives people a second chance and who are we to take that second chance away?
I sat on the visiting committee of St. Patrick's juvenile centre and I spent years in and out of the centre, week in and week out. I met people who were incarcerated in a prison system that had its vocational school closed down and its woodwork room and its gym rooms all broken and abandoned. What a place for young people. I am glad to say that centre is now closed. The Irish Penal Reform Trust has probably constantly argued how to deal with the prison service and make prisons better places. People have talked previously about restorative justice, which is very important, but I really believe there is great potential in this Bill.
I draw Members' attention to the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality report on penal reform and sentencing of May 2018. It is a good document and one that we should look at. It addresses a number of issues. I am particularly reminded of its final paragraphs where it refers to homelessness. I have met people who were released from prison on short periods - even for Christmas - into emergency accommodation, but we are all aware of the crisis in housing. When we give people a second chance we must always be conscious of where they are going. The reality is that many families, for whatever reason, do not want these people back. We must have safe accommodation for them. Especially around Christmas and holiday release we know that within days some people come back to prisons, knock on the door and ask to be taken back in because they have not been welcomed at home or found a safe space or safe place to go to. If we are to reintegrate people into our community we have to have those safe spaces and places for people so they can play their role.
So many people were condemned for small offences. Yes we have to have safe communities and we have to protect our citizens. However, we must start looking at how we can empty out our prison system and how we can rehabilitate, support and assist people within the prison service and ultimately transition people back into the community. That is a bigger issue in penal reform. The Minister knows well the situation and he knows better than anybody the demands on the prison service.
The report also looked at the parole situation. The committee called for the creation of a new statutory parole board, fully independent of political control and governance. There are issues all around that. I am always conscious of the other side of the debate which is the victims of crime. I have already said that communities have to be safe, and I am always mindful of that, but in essence this is a really good Bill. It may need to be tweaked a bit.Let us not block people from having a new beginning, a new chance a new opportunity to turn around their lives and play a meaningful role. Let us be understanding. Why are many of the people in question in prison? What opportunities, including educational opportunities, did they have? Did they have an equal start at an early age? Were they supported in trying to achieve their potential? "No" is the answer for most of them. We are not all made the same and do not all have the same supports. We do not all have the same confidence, love and affection that make us meaningful citizens in our communities. It is a multifaceted approach to why in the first place people were involved in such crimes and incarcerated. I commend the Bill to the House and will support it all the way, but I will also be open to a reasonable, common-sense approach to amendments to it.
I thank the Civil Engagement group for bringing forward the Bill which amends the Criminal Justice Act (Spent Convictions and Certain Disclosures) 2016 to provide for broader and fairer access to spent convictions. A spent conviction, also known as an expungement, is one that does not have to be disclosed after a certain period of time, for example, in job or housing applications or accessing education, to name but a few. Whether we care to admit it as a society, the legislation passed in 2016 was the bare minimum the State could have done. It missed an opportunity to introduce progressive legislation that put the focus on the rehabilitation of offenders. The 2016 Act is extremely limited in whom it serves and it was quite thought-provoking to hear it referred to as middle-class legislation. It is antiquated in places, despite having been drafted only three years ago.
The Bill before us seeks to increase the number of convictions which may be spent by adults, defined in the Bill as persons over the age of 24 years, from one to two and for young people, between the ages of 18 and 24, from one to three. Both measures are welcome and progressive; however, it may be worth making the number of convictions which may be spent three across the board, rather than staggering it. That is probably something that could be addressed on Committee Stage. No doubt, thought has been given to these measures by the Civil Engagement group and Senator Ruane.
The Bill extends custodial sentences eligible to be spent from 12 months to 24 and for non-custodial sentences from 24 months to 48. This is welcome and a progressive and sensible proposal. The concept of spent convictions emanated from a restorative justice perspective, which is viewed as giving people a second chance in not having the burden of a conviction appearing and potentially prejudicing them in the future. On that point, the age-old debate on nature versus nurture comes into play, a debate that will probably never conclude. Opposition to the Bill will come from those who lean towards the belief the commission of crimes is innate and a predestined reality. I hope the vast majority of representatives who have worked in and represented communities for decades will consider it from the nurture perspective, which acknowledges that the environment in which we exist can at times lead to individuals making poor decisions. Being human, it is only natural that we all make mistakes at different times in our lives, some of which will be small, while others will lead to legal consequences. A sentence that results from any such mistake can, under the current legislation, result in a penalty that will long outdate the sentence imposed in court.
I could not attend the briefing in the audiovisual room yesterday, but I am told that it was informative and crystallised what is being put forward, its intentions and some of the further concerns of stakeholders about spent convictions that cannot be addressed in the Bill. I am told that Niall Walsh from the Pathways Centre was particularly impressive. He has spoken about how a conviction which may be decades old does not fall under the current legislation and inhibits the person concerned in his or her day-to-day life. He is an example of someone who 20 years on had moved on and almost forgotten about his conviction, only for it to once again come to the fore when he had a family. People may go on to have kids only to discover that despite a conviction being 20 years old, they are unable to volunteer or help out with a young person's soccer team or take children on holidays. They are being punished for a mistake, despite having served their sentence, literally or figuratively.
Sinn Féin believes effective post-release reintegration of offenders with their families and communities, once a custodial sentence has been served, is essential for the prevention of reoffending and, therefore, ensuring community safety, which is in everyone's best interests. Therefore, the Bill is more than welcome. Since it is our view that the primary objective of justice policy is to prevent crime, part of the emphasis must be on incentivising crime-free lifestyles by ensuring gainful employment is available to ex-prisoners. This should not be out of the reach of the majority of prisoners. To that end, unwarranted barriers of discrimination in law or policy must be removed proactively. A range of barriers serve to inhibit the reintegration of all those with past convictions, especially ex-prisoners.
Sinn Féin and the Irish Human Rights Commission have also proposed that equality legislation be extended to include criminal convictions as one of the grounds on which discrimination in employment, except where objectively incompatible with job responsibilities and the provision of services, be prohibited. This protection is crucial to ensure effective post-release reintegration, in particular, through the provision of adequate and appropriate housing. This may not be included in the Bill, but it should absolutely be considered further. It is my view that the Bill is quite moderate in the changes it seeks to make to the 2016 Act and will particularly be beneficial to younger people who may make mistakes earlier in life. I understand also the choices we must make, as legislators, when drafting legislation and know that there will be productive conversations on further Stages of the Bill. The Bill is also in line with the concept we are exploring, as is the Minister, of extending Garda youth diversion projects to capture young people between the ages of 18 and 24 years.
I am happy to again state Sinn Féin's support for the Bill and hope it will progress through the relevant Stages quickly. I commend Senator Ruane and the Civil Engagement group on their work.
I thank Senator Ruane for giving us the opportunity to speak to the Bill and congratulate her and the Civil Engagement group on bringing it before us. It is important to recognise that we have a very progressive and reforming Minister for Justice and Equality, which is why he deserves accolades from us for the work he is doing.
Having listened to Senator Ruane's contribution and from my own experience as a schoolteacher and a director of adult education and having been involved as a politician in my community, I recognise that what we do as politicians must and should be about people-----
-----irrespective of where they are from or who they are. We must ensure that what we try to do at all times is for the common good in giving people an opportunity to flourish and develop and reach the potential that in many cases they are so eager to reach. When we discover there are members of the school community, neighbourhood or friends who have not had the opportunity to flourish and have matured in life and discovered that some of their early choices and decisions were less than what they should have been, they, too, deserve an opportunity to flourish, develop and grow. I know that is what the Minister does and it is what I try to do. Given this opportunity, we must reflect on the people who are speaking through us tonight in this Chamber and going back over decades of wrong decisions and incidents that happened in their lives. We all know of people, friends and neighbours who committed an offence, paid a price that has left an impression on their lives and, in many cases, helped to shape their lives for good or bad. There are people who have benefited from the 2016 Act, despite what some have said. It was a stepping stone because it did create a different pathway. We must offer a second chance and allow people to remove barriers and obstacles.We must be allowing people to remove barriers and obstacles. I always tried as an educator, whether I was teaching the leaving certificate applied or the leaving certificate, or was in adult education, to create a pathway. It was about creating a platform from which people could move on to the next level. Senator Ruane is trying to achieve access to education, employment and opportunities. Alcoholics and gamblers in society today are offered a second opportunity. Many of them take it. As we celebrate the 30th anniversary of Tabor Lodge in Cork, I am struck by the number of men and women who have come through addiction issues into counselling and step-down facilities. Senator Boyhan made reference to Christmas time. People are being reintegrated into society, which is an awful phrase in my opinion, and being reintegrated back into their families. We use the word "rehabilitation", which is a wonderful word, but what does it actually mean when we boil it down? It means we all embrace each other and allow each other to live life as best we can. That is why I think it is about rewarding the person who has worked, tried to rebuild, earnestly engaged in a pathway and given of themselves in that journey to become a different, newer person.
I was at the cinema in Dundrum. In a perverse way, Dick Cheney comes into this debate. I do not want to spoil the film for those who have not seen it but it begins with a scene of a drink-driving episode in Wyoming and the book-end is that he becomes the Vice President of the United States. If that person was to be judged on the first act of the movie, which was real life, he would never have been Vice President of the United States.
We all make decisions. I refer to the children's Act. I was very proud of the former Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, and the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, as Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, because we changed some of the legislation around the offences caused by young people whereby convictions were expunged. As Senator Boyhan said, I hope we can take this Bill and, if we need to, amend it to make it better. I do not mean that to be offensive, as the Senator knows. We have started a good journey. I congratulate the Senator.
I compliment Senator Ruane, who has shown considerable commitment to this House, coming in here when she is suffering from flu. Well done to her. I would also like to compliment her eminence grise, Sebastian, who I see in the Gallery. They are a very remarkable team.
Just a couple of weeks ago, a survey was done by the Irish Penal Reform Trust among people with convictions. The greatest concern was with employment; 81% found that having a conviction had a negative impact on getting a job. Another issue negatively impacted by having a conviction was emigration, at 56%. One cannot go to the United States if one has a criminal conviction, for example. Volunteering was at 53%. It is extraordinary that people who have recovered from their criminal past are not allowed to volunteer. Surely that would be a good thing. It is plain common sense that people in a job are less likely to offend. It should be a good idea to help them get a job.
I did not realise insurance would be affected and that they have to pay a higher premium; 39% of them said that. Looking at who these people were, the most serious punishment received by 25% of respondents was a fine. For 8% it was disposal under the Probation Act. More than one third of the people in this situation did not have a custodial sentence at all. It is a very harsh penalty to put on people when they just have this minor conviction. The impact is amazing.
People think that when one is released from jail, it is all over but it is not. They all said it was just beginning once they were released because they could not get a job. A client with the Merchant's Quay Project said:
It's the fear because I know that if I go for a job they are going to check me out and that's it, they're not going to hire me, so in my head, what's the point if they're not going to? They say, "Look at these convictions, we don't want a thief around us," so I don't bother.
Here is another one:
You do the crime, you go in and you do your time, that's fair enough. But then to be tarred with it for the rest of your life and for it to affect someone who is willingly trying to change and turn their life around, it kind of defeats the purpose.
It most certainly does.
The disclosure of convictions was contemplated by the European Court of Human Rights in 2012. It decided that there was a privacy element about the revelation of convictions because it inhibited the ability to develop life. It considered that as the past conviction recedes, it becomes part of the person's private life and is covered by privacy legislation. The single conviction rule that only one conviction is enough to trigger this situation was determined by the United Kingdom Supreme Court to be so disproportionate as to be nonsensical and to facilitate employer discrimination. We have a parallel situation with regard to the Internet. Google has had to accept the right to be forgotten. This is a legal equivalent for the right to be forgotten. I was at the briefing and found it very impressive. The gentleman from Pathways told of a number of situations. He is an obvious person to be in the Penal Reform Trust and so on but he had to get an order from the High Court to allow him to sit on this charity. If he wanted to go on a school-organised holiday with his children, he had to be vetted by the police and he did not want his children at that stage to know the situation.
I strongly support the Bill. It is excellent. I will end with an email I received from somebody who works in the community. She says she is currently working as a community addiction worker and feels that extending the legislation will allow more people with lived experience and therefore a wealth of knowledge that cannot be taught to access work in her particular field or any community support programme. In addition, and arguably more importantly, it allows for second chances. We too often stand in judgment of others, which can create even more tiers within our society. This is a progressive move by Senator Ruane and the Civil Engagement group. I compliment them on it and take my hat off to Senator Ruane for coming in with her flu. I would recommend that immediately after this she goes straight to bed, only stopping in the kitchen to get a hot whiskey.
I commend my colleague, Senator Ruane, those who have worked with her in civil society, and her assistant, Seb McAteer. I know this Bill comes very deeply from many years of experience working with and supporting people to chart pathways forward for themselves. That is really reflected in the way the Bill looks at the different aspects of the experiences and addresses some of the many different obstacles. It is a really thoughtful piece of work that will make an enormous difference in people's lives. I am very proud that we are able to support it as the Civil Engagement group and am proud to be a co-sponsor of it.
So much has been said but I will pick up on a couple of things.I welcome the support from across the House and acknowledge that others started some of these conversations in the past. Though the 2016 legislation was restrictive, I commend those from different parties who tried to bring this issue to the table in the past. We are building on that and bringing it forward.
There are significant problems with the legislation as it stands. In many cases, there is a seven-year requirement before a conviction can become spent. That is a huge section of anybody's life. How can a period when a person has this constraint be manageable for that person when planning his or her career and life? Another key idea is that of the single conviction. We all know that if a person makes a mistake, he or she often makes another mistake. We have situations where people go through difficult periods in their lives, such as addiction or other chaotic periods, and they make mistakes which come in a group. This is definitely a step forward in recognising the issue of two convictions, or three in the case of those who are younger.
I planned to list all the interesting information from the Irish Penal Reform Trust about the impact on different aspects of life, whether employment, home insurance or travel, but Senator Norris has already done so. They are stark figures. I will pick out two. It is striking that 53% of people experienced obstacles, even in volunteering. That is partially addressed by this Bill but, as others have said, there are issues of discrimination which need to be identified and addressed. It should not be the case that somebody who is seeking to reach out to society and to turn his or her life around is automatically and always blocked, especially when a previous offence may in no way impact or be relevant to the kinds of volunteering work that they wish to do.
With regard to employment, I sit on the Joint Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection and we have great debates there about how we ensure that people are given a full set of options and that we do better casework. We have debated it, because in many cases our system does not send people in the right direction. If a person comes to an overloaded caseworker, the options presented to that person may be constrained. We heard very clear stories from people relating to the issues involved. If a person wants to pursue a career that requires placement, having to declare a previous offence can stop that person from getting a placement and a rung of the ladder is effectively missing since that person cannot move on and get a placement. In many other areas, Garda vetting will make another candidate more appealing.
There are constraints on what people can do. That does not just mean that individuals lose out. It also means that families lose out, which is a very striking fact which was reflected in the research from the Irish Penal Reform Trust. It talks about how a person's family is still being punished for his or her crime. Children who may not have been born at the time of the crime feel the impact of it through their parents. Similarly, there is the very real testimony given by Niall Walsh from the Pathways Centre about the impact it had on his children. It impacts on the individual, on the common good and on society because we lose out on people who have extraordinary experience. Somebody who might be the right person to work in community development, make an intervention and support young people in vulnerable situations to move to a better path might be blocked from doing so. Those who should be on boards and making decisions can face that obstacle of a requirement to go to the High Court to do so.
Figures from SpunOut indicate that young people are 10% of the population but comprise 20% of the prison population. They are especially vulnerable. In my experience of working with young, unemployed people in the south east, I saw how easy it was for young people to go through a difficult period and then find a year or two later, perhaps, after a difficult experience or family crisis, that they wanted to put their lives back on track, in many cases because they may have become parents themselves at 22 or 23 and wanted to turn their lives around. It is very important that the period would be reduced to three years for most of those young people in this legislation. That is much more manageable and allows them to plan their lives. Since the risk of reoffending is higher for young people, it allows for rehabilitative supports within prisons to talk to young people about how they can have a better life. It is not a situation of despair or all being lost but that there are pathways for them. Rehabilitative work within prison to make sure that people plan for their lives afterwards has been mentioned by a number of people.
We have spoken for many hours in the past about data protection. The Minister and I both have debated it and there are concerns about the legislation, not simply relating to the European Court of Human Rights and its rulings and concerns on private life and what belongs in it, but also relating to the general data protection regulation, GDPR, and other areas. There are questions of proportionality and necessity. Many experts in this area feel that it cannot be considered proportionate or necessary in many cases to require people to disclose a previous offence from many years past if that offence is in no way relevant to the current context or employment. For example, if somebody has paid a fine in one area and it does not relate to work in a completely different area, is it proportionate or necessary to make that person disclose it? Senator Ruane has done a service by producing the appendix to begin to tease out what the principle of proportionality might look like. That takes us a big step forward as a State, and I am sure that is one reason the Minister recognises the value of this Bill.
The most important thing is public interest. That is the test for the proportionality and necessity for what we do. Is it not in the public interest that we send a message to people that we do not simply see them as former offenders but as citizens and contributors, and that the identity that we, as a society, place on them is not defined by one offence or action? It sends a message of value and encouragement to people that will even have an impact on those in prison now.
I thank everybody for their support for this Bill. I look forward to its passage. I am sure others will look to strengthen it in time.
I thank Senator Ruane for introducing this important legislation to the House in December. I thank Senators Black and Higgins for strongly supporting its presentation to the House. It is an important issue, not only for those who have convictions but for society as a whole. I support the Bill, in principle, which sets out to assist those with convictions who have moved away from offending and want to get on with their lives. This is important and valuable for individuals, for their families, for communities and for society as a whole. My officials met Senator Ruane this week to discuss these proposals and, at that time, they flagged that as the proposals represent a considerable extension of recently enacted legislation, they will require careful analysis and consideration. I am open to analysis and the necessary consideration, however, some of which we have heard already this evening.
The Criminal Justice (Spent Convictions and Certain Disclosures) Act came into force just under three years ago. The Act, which had been championed by my predecessor, then Minister Alan Shatter, during his time as Minister for Justice and Equality and was introduced to the Statute Book by the former Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, underwent considerable and extensive consultation and scrutiny, both within the Oireachtas and throughout society, with particular reference to the contribution of the many stakeholders involved.In fact, the Bill, as it was then, was amended several times as it progressed through the Houses of the Oireachtas. I have no doubt that if this Bill is ultimately enacted, it will experience the same detailed consideration, which is as it should be. Having said that, I am conscious of the views of the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality and the Irish Penal Reform Trust and the application and scope of the provisions set out in the 2016 Act. The presentation of Senator Ruane's Bill is a most welcome development in that regard. It will assist me and my Department in carefully considering the effectiveness and balance of the provisions of the 2016 Act in order that the fairest possible outcome can be achieved for all citizens. It is important that the Act be kept under review in order that it will continue to benefit citizens in a measured, equitable and fair way and effective in the achievement of its goals.
The Bill proposes significant amendments to the 2016 Act. It proposes that the existing spent convictions legislation be extended to include non-custodial sentences of up to 48 months and custodial sentences of up to 24 months. It also proposes to increase the number of convictions which could become spent at some future time. It also seeks to introduce the principle of proportionality when it comes to determining when a conviction is spent. I acknowledge what Senator Higgins said in that regard. She is right. The principle contained in the legislation would introduce a sliding scale of periods before which a conviction could be considered to be spent. This sliding scale is based on the type of conviction that might be involved. In that context, it should be noted that the Bill treats young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 years more favourably than others. As part of the sliding scale, the Bill reduces further the periods before the convictions of such persons are spent. Importantly, the amendments create consequential amendments to the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012.
I am conscious of the arguments in favour of liberalising the spent convictions regime. In particular, it is argued that such an approach reduces the extent to which individuals have their life opportunities, including their access to education, work and volunteering, restricted by convictions. It is suggested legislation of this nature would better enable such persons to move on with their lives. I am aware that Senator Ruane works closely with many individuals who are engaged in attempts to transform their lives. I sincerely commend her on her important and valuable work. I acknowledge what Senator Boyhan said about the influence of Senator Ruane's contribution. I agree with him. I know that Senator Ruane has been working with the Irish Penal Reform Trust in developing this legislation. The trust has published a survey of the impact of past convictions on people who are moving on with their lives. The findings of the survey of 148 people represent a useful contribution to the debate.
The changes being proposed in the Bill reflect the issues that are debated when people consider the purpose, effectiveness and impact of spent convictions legislation. The changes raise questions which require careful consideration. I am very pleased that Senators have indicated that there are issues which require detailed consideration and analysis. It would be fair to define some of these questions at this juncture.
Is the current spent convictions legislation proportionate? How are people with custodial sentences being treated in comparison with others who are given non-custodial sentences? Should young adults be treated differently from others with convictions? What impact would this have, given that a significant proportion of offences are committed by people in the 18 to 24 year age bracket? Would treating these young adults differently have knock-on effects on other legislation enacted? Do two convictions represent a pattern of offending? When is reoffending a risk to the public? In expanding the scope of this legislation what offences would be included? Would any of these offences be considered to be serious in a legal context? How would the victims of such offences view these changes and proposals?
Comparisons have been made with other common law states, specifically England and Wales. I note that in recent studies of this matter reference has been made to the impact of data protection law, the effect of the Internet and the individual's right to privacy. I understand there have been a number of judgments in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe on these issues. In particular, I note the Supreme Court judgment in England last month on spent conviction legislation. The court rejected an appeal by the UK Home Office against the disclosure of convictions in four cases. I wish to highlight the fact that it is not the case that we have an absolute single conviction rule in our legislation. The 2016 Act provides that certain categories of offence, including a range of motoring and public order offences, may be regarded as spent, even if there are multiple such convictions on the record of an individual.
I look forward to an examination of the relevant proposals made in the legislation in order that I may consider whether the 2016 Act may be strengthened and, if so, in what manner. I stress that a balance needs to be struck between protecting the public and rehabilitating the offender. It is through this prism that the Department will evaluate and analyse the proposals contained in Senator Ruane's Bill. We will consider any appropriate judgment in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe, with the questions I have posed. I refer to these matters in order to highlight that the Bill and its proposed changes raise complex questions and issues that need to be considered carefully. I acknowledge the admission of Senators representing all parties and none in that regard.
As I said, the Government does not oppose the legislation in principle. However, it is important and reasonable that careful consideration be given not only to the impact of changes of this nature on the individual with the convictions but also to unanticipated or unintended implications that may arise down the road. Therefore, the Bill, as proposed, requires careful consideration. Such consideration has not been possible in the short time since its publication. However, I acknowledge the spirit in which the legislation has been proposed and debated. It is important to have a clear understanding of all of the effects the changes would have. Particularly important work needs to be done to examine the types of offence which could at some future date become spent. There will have to be an opportunity to consider whether such offence might not be considered to be minor. If we were to extend the threshold for custodial sentences to two years of imprisonment, it could bring relatively serious offences within the scope of the legislation. The possible implications of the changes on vetting will have to be considered. The impact of recent judgments will also need to be examined carefully. Following this work, consideration can be given to the case for amendments to deal with concerns, if any, that might arise.
I thank Senator Ruane for agreeing to share her research and analysis with my Department in order to assist me and my officials in our work. As Minister, I assure all Senators but Senator Ruane, in particular, that I will undertake to work with them to make progress with this legislation. I will ensure it is balanced, fair and effective in its approach, from the perspectives of protecting the public and rehabilitating the offenders involved.
I thank everybody across the House who has shown his or her support for the Bill. It means a lot to me to hear such encouraging words from every party and none in the House. It means more to me because legislation such as this has impacted on my life and the lives of those with whom I have worked and in my community for a very long time. During the week I was in the gym where a woman, a youth worker in Ballyfermot, said to me she had been talking to a young lad who was in my class. I teach in Maynooth on Mondays. She said he was going to drop out of the course but had decided to stay because he had met someone there who was like him. He was talking about me. That got me thinking about what other professions would be like if individuals were able to sit in front of others and where a person could look at another and say he or she would stay engaged because that person was like him or her.
I then thought about the value people with convictions would bring to such places as the Probation Service, An Garda Síochána and the Department of Justice and Equality. Imagine having that expertise in the room, a person who has lived such a life and what he or she could bring to the table. As someone who was on probation and sat in front of a probation officer in my teens, sometimes the people in question are not given a chance. They could be very good at the job. The first thing they think is that the other person does not understand them. They have never experienced what they have experienced. They do not get it. Therefore, they shut them off and do not really give them a chance to engage, even though they could be their way out. Sometimes, however, someone is not prepared to listen if he or she does not sound or look like us as he or she may not have had the same experiences. Legislation such as this which will allow us to widen participation in the workforce can only ever be good for society. What has been mentioned a few times is protecting the public, but we can only ever really protect it by allowing rehabilitation and reintegration. Being fair to the individual is intertwined and interlinked with protecting the public. They cannot be seen as separate. In supporting the individual, one builds stronger democracies and communities and a more trustworthy public.
The Bill is not about letting people off easily but about reducing criminality. It is about people who are not reoffending. To avail of it, one must not be offending. If one is continuing to offend, one will have three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine or ten offences, in other words, countless convictions on one's record. Therefore, the Bill is about people who are trying to reintegrate.
When I was listening to the piece about volunteering, it occurred to me that years ago on summer projects in communities with one's child someone did not have to be Garda vetted. Now someone has to be. Someone does not have responsibility for other children on a summer project, but, obviously, there are new policies in place such that if someone is going on a trip, even if it is only a day trip, all of the adults have to be Garda vetted. Right now someone can be excluded, even though he or she has no responsibility for other children. One is not there as a helper or a volunteer but with one's own child. However, one cannot have that right to family life with one's children because of an old conviction.
This legislation is crucial. It is life-changing, not only for individuals but also for society. I look forward to working with the Minister and his Department and everybody within the House to develop the Bill develop in a way that it will be accessible for individuals and also reasonable for everybody in this House. The Bill was drafted based on everything that had been said in each item of legislation on spent convictions. Every conversation that had taken place in the Chamber was carefully analysed by my office to see what people had seen as wrong with the original legislation, not just the 2016 legislation but also the two items of legislation tabled before it. There is not much in the Bill that has not been spoken about in the past ten years within the Houses. I did not pull anything out of the air in terms of its policy intentions.
I thank everyone for his or her support and allowing us to proceed beyond Second Stage in order that we can engage in critical analysis of the legislation. To that end, I look forward to working with the Minister and his Department.