Check against Delivery

Private Members' Motion, Seanad Éireann, Wednesday 5 November, 2014

On behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality I would like to thank Senator Bacik and her colleagues for raising this important matter. It offers a very welcome opportunity to address this House on the important issue of penal reform and, in particular, to discuss with members the reports of the Penal Policy Review Group and the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality.

As Minister for Justice and Equality, my colleague Frances Fitzgerald is committed to a programme of comprehensive reform in the administration of criminal justice in Ireland, including in particular reform in prison and penal policy. She believes this reform will contribute to a safer, more efficient, and more equitable criminal justice system in Ireland.

I welcome the Penal Policy Review Group Report and would like to thank the Chairman, Mr Michael Whelan, and the members of the group for putting together this comprehensive report.

The Review Group was established in September 2012 and tasked with carrying out a strategic review of penal policy taking into account the relevant work already carried out in this jurisdiction and elsewhere, the rights of those convicted of crimes, the perspective of those who are victims of crime, and the interests of society in general.

The Group was asked to make recommendations on how a principled and sustainable penal system might be further enhanced taking into account resource implications, constitutional imperatives and our international obligations. It is clear that the Group adopted a progressive but pragmatic approach and their recommendations will make a positive contribution to a more progressive penal policy in Ireland.

It sets out a road map for the strategic development of penal reform into the future which will help modernise and shape how we, as a society, deal with some of the most complex issues involved in criminal justice and penal reform policy.

The Minister for Justice believes our future penal policy must be focussed on two key goals – punishment and prevention:
· The societal need for punishment to be served must be met;
· But the proven potential to reduce crime through reducing re-offending must also be grasped.

The Review Group provide their own statements on these two goals, stating:
· Firstly, while imprisonment should be regarded as a sanction of last resort, nonetheless “in line with the principle of proportionality, there are offences for which imprisonment may be the only appropriate sentence”; and
· Secondly that: “the overarching purpose of criminal and penal policy should be to make Ireland a safer and fairer place” and “that any penal system which does not aspire to a reduction in offending behaviour as a key goal is failing in its purpose.“

The Review Group goes on to identify “rehabilitation and reintegration as a core principle and significant factor in reducing crime and considers that such aims are best achieved in a non-custodial environment as far as possible.”
What this also means is that while prisons will remain part of the answer, prison will not be the only answer.

Minister Fitzgerald feels strongly that we need to move on from the Victorian-era penal approach to punishing prisoners with a set prison sentence. Similarly we need to move away from, what has been seen as a ‘revolving door’ of prisoners going in and out of prison. Revolving door policies don’t work and simply locking up offenders doesn’t work either. They don’t work for the persons involved, and they don’t work for society.

But let me be clear, Minister Fitzgerald is determined that serious offenders and serial offenders must continue to be imprisoned. Public safety is of paramount importance and she is absolute about this. Society expects and demands nothing less.

But Minister Fitzgerald is also clear in her view that prison is not the only solution when it comes to those convicted of lesser, non-violent offences. Why should we send such persons to prison, at a high cost to the taxpayer, into a prison environment where, despite all the improvements in recent years, for some, their underlying offending behaviour, not to mention any addiction or mental health problems, may be exacerbated rather than eliminated? When, alternatively, we can tackle re-offending head on by imposing a supervised community sanction, with appropriate supports, which could see punishment being served, but which would also lead, not only to rehabilitation, but to a reduced risk of reoffending.

Recidivism Studies by the Central Statistics Office (CSO) have shown that offenders who received either a Probation Order or a Community Service Order in 2007 and 2008 had a re-offending rate nearly 50% lower than those who had received a custodial sentence (41% vs 62%). This shows that supervised community sanctions can help to reduce reoffending, thereby reducing crime.

The Review Group was also asked to consider the recommendations contained in the March 2013 Report of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality, and I want to come back to that report in a few moments.

Key recommendations of review group
The Report of the Penal Policy Review Group contains 43 recommendations and proposes the adoption of a penal policy with the dual purposes of punishment and rehabilitation both in the imposition and management of criminal sanctions.

The House will appreciate that while some of the report’s recommendations can be implemented in the short to medium term, others will require a more long term approach. As an initial important step, the Minister for Justice and Equality obtained the agreement of Government in principle yesterday to proceed immediately with the implementation of the following key recommendations:

Place the Parole Board on a statutory basis
As recommended, Minister Fitzgerald intends to develop and bring forward legislative proposals to Government providing for a statutory Parole Board, setting out its functions, powers and structure, including how it will fit into the overall criminal justice system. The objective will be a more effective and streamlined parole process which will be of benefit to the prisoner and the community to which he or she may in time return, but of course with public safety remaining paramount.

Role of Victims
The Group also recommend that the role of the victim in the criminal justice system should be fully acknowledged and the Minister for Justice and Equality agrees wholeheartedly. Minister Fitzgerald is absolutely committed to strengthening support for the victims of crime and she intends to explore the issue of victim representation on the Parole Board in this context.
Minister Fitzgerald intends to strengthen support for the victims of crime by implementing the EU Directive on Victims’ Rights in 2015.
Reform of sentencing policy
In response to the Review Group’s recommendations on mandatory or presumptive minimum sentences, the Minister has asked her officials to prepare options for consideration by her and Government on reform of sentencing policy, including a review of the threshold at which presumptive minimum sentences in drugs and other offences apply. The recommendations contained in the Law Reform Commission report on mandatory sentences published in June 2013 will also be considered in that context.

Legislating for the requirement that Courts set out in writing their reasons for imposing a custodial sentence
The Group recommends that when imposing a custodial sentence a Court should set out its reasons, preferably in writing. Justice officials have now been asked to consider, in consultation with the Courts Service, how best this recommendation can be taken forward.

Increased use of earned remission
The Group recommends that there should be a consistent and transparent application of provisions, based on fair procedures, permitting offenders to earn remission of up to one third of the sentence imposed if such discretionary remission is to be retained.

I might note here that the Minister for Justice recently signed new prison rules which provide a much clearer and more comprehensive basis for the current enhanced remission rate of one-third of sentence.

An open prison for female offenders
The Group recommends that an appropriate open facility for female offenders be introduced.

I can advise the House that the Irish Prison Service has established a sub-group to examine the possible location of a new open centre for women prisoners. Once the subgroup has reported, it is the intention of the Minister for Justice and Equality to ask the Prison Service to bring forward proposals on developing such an open centre for female offenders.

Implementation of recommendations
The Report envisages that progress on implementation of the recommendations be published every six months. The Minister intends to establish an implementation group with an independent chairperson to oversee implementation of these recommendations and to report back on a regular basis. Minister Fitzgerald is currently considering such an appointment and hopes to make an announcement shortly.

She is also referring the Penal Policy Review Group report to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Equality & Defence, following its consideration by Government at its meeting yesterday.

Report of the Joint Committee
A Chathaoirligh, I note the amendment to this motion seeking the implementation of the five recommendations in the March 2013 report on Penal Reform of the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality.

Can I say first of all that the Joint Committee report is a very valuable contribution to the debate on penal reform, and contains analysis and recommendations which considerably advance the debate on how best to protect society through effective offender management. It is a tribute to the Joint Committee that, under the capable chairmanship of Deputy David Stanton, there was cross-party support for a range of measures designed to further the development of an effective and progressive penal system.

In many ways the report of the Joint Committee complements the more recent report of the Strategic Review of Penal Policy, which took the Joint Committee report into account. Of course there are naturally some variations in approach as between the two reports, and these can be examined as part of the ongoing process of implementation. These differences in detail underscore the variety of ways in which the agreed objective of penal reform can be advanced, and the Minister for Justice and Equality looks forward to working with Senators, members of the Joint Committee and others in achieving that goal.

On the recommendation to reduce prison numbers, for example, I think that the Joint Committee was right to be concerned at what up to then had been the significant increase in the number of prisoners, but thankfully those numbers have since been steadily reducing, and this has provided space, both literally and metaphorically, for reforming measures to be considered and introduced. (for example the prison population has declined from an average of 4,390 in 2011 to 3,772 as at today’s date) I would perhaps add a note of caution in relation to setting a specific target, such as reducing the prison population by one-third, as ultimately there are many factors which must be taken into account, including the rate of crime and of course the independence of courts in making sentencing decisions. Sanctions must be appropriate to each offender, and not be constrained by a policy which simply seeks to reduce prison numbers.

The recommendation that all sentences of imprisonment for less than 6 months for non-violent offences should be commuted and replaced with community service orders draws on the success of a policy in Finland, where a court may commute a sentence of less that 8 months imprisonment to community work. In some ways our law, as set out in the Criminal Justice (Community Service) (Amendment) Act 2011, now goes further, in that it not only makes community service available as an alternative, but positively obliges consideration of community service in any case where there might be a sentence of up to one year, rather than just 6 months. This was an important development in sentencing policy, and the Minister is certainly open to considering whether any further steps could be taken.

The Joint Committee also recommended that the rate of standard remission of sentence should be increased from one-quarter to one-third for all sentences over one month in length, and that enhanced remission of up to one-half should be available. This recommendation was considered by the Penal Policy Review Group. Underlining how there is room for legitimate variations of view on how to achieve a common goal, some members of the Review Group favoured the Joint Committee recommendation, but overall the Review Group came down in favour of retention of the current system of remission, which has a standard rate of one-quarter.

The Joint Committee also recommended that there should be a single piece of legislation to provide for various forms of structured release, such as temporary release, including the community return scheme, and the recommended changes to the rates of remission. In principle, the Minister for Justice and Equality will certainly look for any opportunity, on sentencing matters or other criminal justice issues, for legislative consolidation. But whether consolidated or separate, what matters most is the substance of our law on the release of prisoners, and how it can aid rehabilitation, re-integration into the community, and ultimately reduced rates of reoffending. That is why Minister Fitzgerald is very pleased at the success of the community return scheme, and great credit is due to the Irish Prison Service and the Probation Service for how it has operated so effectively.

The fifth and final recommendation in the report of the Joint Committee is to improve prison conditions, especially to deal with overcrowding, and to increase the proportion of open prison places. This recommendation is very much welcome, and I know that the whole House will recognise and support the huge improvements in prison conditions that we are now seeing. Mountjoy Prison has been renovated and transformed, almost beyond recognition. A new Cork Prison is currently being built. There are also other significant improvement projects under way, including the taking of steps to provide an open centre for women.

A Chathaoirligh, the report of the Joint Committee, and the subsequent report of the Strategic Review of Penal Policy, which had the advantage of being able to consider the recommendations of the Joint Committee, are hugely important contributions to the debate on penal reform. They will be an invaluable source of advice to Minister Fitzgerald, to the Government and to everyone interested in making progressive and effective changes to penal policy. As I say, the reports do in some respects reflect entirely legitimate variations in views, but always with the same objective: to make our penal system such that offenders can be dealt with where appropriate with non-custodial sanctions, and that where offenders are sent to prison – which will often be necessary for the protection of the public – they are given every opportunity to rehabilitate and re-integrate safely into society, for the ultimate protection of all.

Thank you.