Check against delivery

 

15th September 2016

 

I am extremely honoured to have been asked to formally open this two day conference relating to desistance from crime, which is being organised by the Cork Alliance Centre. This conference follows on from the successful first conference hosted by the Centre in 2013, which marked the organisation’s 10th anniversary and which also dealt with the topic of desistance.

 

I note from the impressive agenda that there will a number of presentations from internationally recognised academics and practitioners, as well as contributions from the academics and agencies here in Ireland.   It is also noteworthy that we will get an opportunity to listen first hand to the personal experiences of those desisting from crime. I feel the fact that the President of Ireland is presenting the key note address here tomorrow shows the importance and significance of this conference and the themes that it addresses.

 

The Penal Policy Review Group Report in 2014 recognised that our penal system must support the rehabilitation and reintegration of offenders, encouraging and supporting them to desist from re-engaging in criminal behaviour. It also recognised that this approach would significantly contribute in making Ireland a safer place for us all.

 

I share the views expressed in the Report that while imprisonment serves an important role in the punishment of serious offences, it can also adversely affect a person’s job prospects, family links, access to accommodation and social attitude in the short and long term. All of these can have a negative effect on a person’s rehabilitation and ultimately impact on whether they will be able to avoid further criminal activity.

 

It is recognised that many offenders come from difficult backgrounds and have complex needs such as alcohol or drug problems, literacy skills and social skills. These people require a broad range of support and assistance to help them make better life choices. It is evident that engagement in education, training, behaviour management and treatment services is crucial to the rehabilitation and reintegration of offenders.

 

These programmes are best achieved, as far as possible, in a non-custodial environment, and we have achieved much progress in pursuing alternatives to custody and providing a range of non-custodial options for the Judiciary.

 

It is accepted that specialised initiatives and support services are often best delivered within the community itself by projects such as Cork Alliance Centre and others. I would therefore like to take this opportunity to emphasise the important role that the community plays in working with offenders, supporting their rehabilitation, re-integration and engagement in a positive lifestyle.

 

Given its role in the community, the Probation Service has a long history of working in partnership with a range of community based organisations. The Probation Service recognises that it cannot address all of the needs of offenders alone and acknowledges the importance of community involvement in preventing re-offending.

 

The State, through the funding provided by the Probation Service and the Irish Prison Service, supports and enables community based organisations to develop and deliver services in communities which enhance the work of these agencies in changing offending behaviour.

 

In 2016 through my Department, the Probation Service has provided €10.7 million directly to Community Based Organisations working with adults and the Irish Youth Justice Service has provided €5m through the Probation Service to the Young Person Probation projects.

 

We should, as far as possible, prioritise community measures and sanctions, as an effective way to contribute to the rehabilitation and re-integration of offenders. Nevertheless, it is also recognised that in some instances a custodial sanction is appropriate. In these circumstances, it is important that the time in custody is used as rehabilitation opportunity. Furthermore, when offenders are leaving prison, we must ensure they have access to the necessary services and supports. This can enable any behavioural or other difficulties which have contributed to the offending behaviour to be addressed. The work of community based organisations is therefore crucial to ensuring that the appropriate supports and services are put in place when offenders are released from prison.

 

You will also know that the Penal Policy Review Group also advocated the need for better inter-agency co-operation in order to develop a just and humane penal system. All of those who work in the Criminal Justice System must have a shared goal of helping to create a safer and a fairer Ireland.  I am a firm supporter of inter-agency work in achieving effective outcomes.  As former Chair of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice and during my relatively short time as Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality, I have been struck by how interconnected the criminal justice system is and how, in turn, that system needs to link in with the wider community.  There is no such thing as an unhealthy criminal justice system existing alongside a healthy society. Both must thrive at the same time. To use the cliché – everything is connected to everything.

 

The Irish Prison Service and the Probation Service work closely together adopting a multi-agency approach to offender management and rehabilitation. They share a common goal of maintaining public safety through the reduction of offending by those in their care, whether the offenders are placed directly under Probation supervision by the Courts or sentenced to custody.

 

In this regard, building on their successful and committed relationship, the Probation Service and the Irish Prison Service last year published their second Joint Strategic Plan covering the period 2015 to 2017. This Strategic Plan includes a strong commitment to inter-agency working, which will allow them to co-coordinate better and more focussed interventions.

 

The Probation Service and Prison Service have also extended their involvement with service users in the development and delivery of services. One such initiative is the partnership between the Irish Prison Service, Probation Service and Irish Red Cross. The initiative improves community awareness and reduces recidivism through Irish Red Cross volunteers (prisoners) transitioning from prison into the community, some of whom President Higgins and I will meet tomorrow in Cork Prison.

 

Another recent example of inter-agency co-operation is the Joint Agency Response to Crime (JARC), which was launched to tackle, in a co-ordinated way, those prolific offenders who cause a high level of harm or disruption in communities, and which was agreed between An Garda Síochána, the Probation Service and the Irish Prison Service. I note that the JARC initiative which was initially commenced in four locations in Dublin will now be extended to three other locations around the country over the coming year.

 

I think it is only appropriate that we should acknowledge the significant work of the Cork Alliance Centre. The Centre was founded in 2003 and supports the work of the Probation Service in challenging offender behaviour and assisting the positive reintegration of offenders into their community. I am delighted to note that Cork Alliance Centre is jointly funded by the Probation Service and the Irish Prison Service.

 

From the beginning the founders of Cork Alliance Centre recognised that the Centre must provide a participant centered programme to offenders on the understanding that the motivation to change comes from within the participant and cannot be imposed on them.

 

Based on these principles Cork Alliance has over the last thirteen years built strong links with the local communities and service providers here in Cork to provide a tailored support to offenders, to assist them in addressing the underlying causes of their offending behaviour. The work of Cork Alliance provides activities which aim to support participants in becoming better equipped to manage their lives, so that they develop an awareness and understanding of the consequences of the choices they make to themselves, their families and to their community.

 

The Centre also provides a supported release programme funded by the Irish Prison Service. The programme is aimed at prisoners who are serving sentences of 3-12 months in Cork prison. The programme offers a short term practical intervention linking those availing of the early and temporary release programmes to services in Cork.

 

It is encouraging that a number of persons who have offended themselves and who gone through the criminal justice system and availed of programmes in the Cork Alliance Centre will be participating and speaking at this conference. I think it is important that we listen to those who have had the courage to address their behaviour as this will enable us to better understand the factors that led to the offending behaviour in the first place and the level of supports that are necessary to facilitate the rehabilitation of the person.  It also provides us with an optimism and belief that with the right level of supports and interventions that persons previously involved in crime can progress to very worthwhile and successful lives.

 

Another positive development is that the most recent Central Statistics Office Recidivism Study for the Probation Service reported that close to 63% of offenders did not reoffend within a three-year period of being placed under Probation Service supervision.  The fact that recidivism levels both for those who were released from prison and for those supervised by the Probation Service have fallen by almost 4% is to be warmly welcomed.  It is hoped that the joint initiatives from State agencies such as the Community Return and Community Support Schemes will further lower the recidivism levels in the future.

 

One of the aims of this conference is to provide an occasion, where we can discuss and endeavour to explore what the process of desistance entails for an individual.  Therefore, there is an opportunity for you over the next two days to discuss and suggest creative and new approaches for dealing with offending behaviour, so that we can work together to reduce the likelihood of further re-offending and that the necessary support systems are put in place to enable this goal to be achieved.

 

I therefore wish to formally open the conference and wish you all a very productive and thought provoking two days.

Thank you.