First Stage: 5 Nov 2014
Oireachtas Link: http://oireachtasdebates.oireachtas.ie/debates%20authoring/debateswebpack.nsf/takes/seanad2014110500025?opendocument#BB00100
Wednesday, 5 November 2014
Senator Ivana Bacik: I move:
"That Seanad Éireann - - notes the publication in March 2013 of the Report on Penal Reform by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality; - notes further the publication by the Minister for Justice and Equality in September 2014 of the Strategic Review of Penal Policy; and - calls on the Minister for Justice and Equality to outline her proposals for reform of penal policy in the context of the recommendations in the two reports."
I welcome the Minister of State to the House on the first occasion he is taking Private Members' business in this House. He is standing in at short notice for the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, who regrets that she is unable to attend today. I spoke with her about this motion a number of times. I welcome the opportunity to speak on the important topic of penal reform. I welcome to the Gallery a group of people whom I know have a great interest in penal reform matters, in particular, a number of people are here from the Irish Penal Reform Trust, namely, Deirdre Malone, Kevin Warner and Fiona Ní Chinnéide. I also acknowledge Paddy Richardson of the Irish Association for the Social Integration of Offenders. I also welcome criminologists, Lindsay Black, Kate O'Hara, Martin Quigley, among others. I apologise if I have omitted anyone but we appreciate the input of these individuals into these debates and their presence here today. I refer to others such as those from the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice and the ACJRD, who are also very interested and will be following this debate, as indeed will others with an interest in criminal justice and penal reform. This motion on behalf of the Labour Party Senators notes the publication in March 2013 of the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality report on penal reform. I was the rapporteur for that report which made five recommendations. We note further the publication by the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, in September of this year of the strategic review of penal policy. We have called on the Minister to outline her proposals for reform of penal policy in the context of the recommendations in the two reports. I will accept the amendment to this motion which calls on the Minister to implement the recommendations. As the rapporteur for the joint committee report which was produced in March 2013 I drafted those recommendations which were adopted unanimously by the justice committee. At our press conference I called on the then Minister to implement them. Our report on penal reform contains five practical recommendations for change in penal policy. If adopted, these would bring about a real change in our penal culture to enable greater rehabilitation of those in prison, to reduce re-offending rates and, in our view, to contribute to a safer society for all. Reducing recidivism is a hugely important goal for society as a whole and for victims of crime in particular. In brief, our report recommended that the Government should take five specific penal policy actions: reduce prison numbers; commute prison sentences of less than six months for non-violent offences; increase standard remission from one quarter to one third and to introduce an incentivised remission scheme of up to one half; introduce legislation for structured release, temporary release, parole and community return; and address prison conditions and overcrowding and increase the use of open prisons. We adopted these recommendations in the justice committee but they were developed by a penal reform sub-committee of the justice committee at my initiative in October 2011 which was chaired by Deputy David Stanton, the Chairperson of the committee. As rapporteur I worked on the draft report which was then adopted unanimously by the justice committee in February 2013. In the process of preparing the report we heard from a range of experts, organisations and statutory bodies, many with first-hand experience of working every day with prisoners and ex-prisoners. A number of common themes emerged from our work and from the hearings. In particular, we heard that our prison system was not working to prevent re-offending, to protect victims of crime or to keep society safe. In the few years before we reported, prison numbers had increased dramatically, with pernicious overcrowding a real feature of our prison estate as a result. For example, as we state in our report, the prison population had increased by 400% between 1970 and 2013. Even in the five years from 2006 to 2010, numbers had increased by almost one third. This clearly had a knock-on effect on prison conditions. Indeed, many of the increases in numbers had taken place at a time when crime rates as a whole were falling. We found prison conditions generally were poor, characterised by overcrowding, by drug misuse, violence, gang conflict and inadequate physical conditions. We heard that opportunities for rehabilitation were limited and that prison release was carried on in an unstructured way with few measures available to prevent re-offending and to encourage re-integration. Under previous Governments, the official response to these very serious problems was to build more prisons, despite the clear view expressed in the many expert reports produced over the years that prison should be a sanction of last resort and that greater reliance should be placed on community-based sanctions, both to achieve more effective rehabilitation and to reduce re-offending rates. I am happy to say that under this Government, there has been a number of progressive changes to our prison system and to our penal policy generally. There have been no more plans to expand the prison estate. The Thornton Hall project is not being pursued and key progressive initiatives have been taken, including the introduction of an innovative and effective community return programme which ensures greater integration of prisoners into their communities. In the short time it has been in operation it has already produced some very impressive figures. I refer to the introduction of a joint prison and probation service plan for women prisoners. We have seen the phasing-out of the appalling practice of slopping out, with its elimination in Mountjoy Prison, the refurbishment of Mountjoy Prison generally, the closure of St. Patrick's Institution for minors and a commitment to rebuilding Cork Prison so as to address the dreadful conditions there. Prison numbers have fallen. The Irish Penal Reform Trust has helpfully provided us with a briefing which points out that the figures this week are 3,760 prisoners in custody on any one day, compared with approximately 4,300 persons in prison on any one day, when we reported in March 2013. In our report we called on the Government to adopt a decarceration strategy by declaring an intention to reduce the prison population by one third over a ten-year period. This would mean a reduction to approximately 2,850 prisoners. This should be done by focusing on non-violent offenders serving relatively short prison terms. Short sentences represent a very significant proportion of our prison population. Last year, for example, 90% of committals to prison under sentence were for periods of less than 12 months for minor offences. The arguments for decarceration are compelling. It is widely accepted that prison rates have a low impact on crime rates and that numbers imprisoned can be lowered without exposing the public to risk. Measures to tackle recidivism work best within a well ordered prison system with good sentence management strategies, not in a system characterised by severe overcrowding and unstructured release - the old revolving door system. In the past our system has been characterised by these features and by very poor conditions. Even with the improvement in conditions and the move towards eliminating slopping out, we still have a situation where more than half of all prisoners are sharing cells. Even where in-cell sanitation has been introduced and which is welcome, prisoners have to use the toilet in front of cell mates, with a resulting effect on their privacy and dignity. There is little emphasis on education or rehabilitation; with long lock-up times and with very little reliance on open prisons. In Ireland only 5% of the prison population are in so-called open prisons, compared to 30% in Finland and close to 40% in Denmark. Open prisons are far more facilitative of rehabilitation and re-integration. Kevin Warner has recently written that this is particularly true for the very vulnerable population of 18 to 21 year-old male prisoners, 225 of whom were incarcerated in Irish prisons in May 2014. However, there is very little attention given to this grouping and very little provision made for their rehabilitation and re-integration into society. The justice committee report argued that in order to tackle overcrowding, reduce prison numbers and develop a system in which genuine rehabilitation can be accomplished, there should be specific strategies of decarceration and in particular that custodial sentences imposed for under six months imprisonment in respect of non-violent offences should be replaced with community service orders and that standard remission should be increased. We also recommended that those in certain categories - prisoners such as first-time offenders – should be eligible to earn extra remission of up to one half of their sentence on an incentivised basis. We pointed out that this would simply bring our remission rules into line with those already operating in the UK and would not apply to groups currently ineligible for remission such as persons serving life sentences for murder, for example. We argued that our recommendations would contribute to a greatly improved penal system with lower re-offending rates. We visited Finland as part of our committee's work and found a system which is highly progressive. With a population of over 5 million and a prison system that was highly punitive with high rates of incarceration, Finnish policy-makers recently adopted a decarceration policy which has reduced prison numbers and a better penal system for all. Our report fed into the strategic review of penal policy established by the then Minister, Deputy Shatter, and which finally reported this year.
The final report of the review process was published in September by the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald. There is a great deal of commonality between the two reports.
The strategic review report contains many progressive recommendations, notably recommendation 32 which states that imprisonment should be a sentence of last resort and that this principle should be enshrined in statute. It is also stated that reduction in the over-reliance on prison is a key goal and should be a key goal of any penal policy. Other key recommendations in the strategic review report include greater use of structured temporary release, the introduction of enhanced remission of up to one third, development of the community return programme, establishment of the parole board on a statutory basis and extension of the restorative justice programme, an issue particularly close to the heart of Senator Conway, my colleague on the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality.
There is much commonality between the two reports and if implemented, the recommendations in both would make for a much more progressive penal system which works more effectively to reduce re-offending and encourage reintegration of offenders. The key concern of groups like the Irish Penal Reform Trust and others is about the implementation of the recommendations in both reports. At a recent Association for Criminal Justice Research and Development conference in Wheatfield Prison, jointly run with the Department of Justice and Equality, I asked this question about implementation. It is vital that we see a timetable established as well as a timeline of action on each of the recommendations, in particular in the strategic review report, with key individual tasks identified. We also need to see a public commitment to establish immediately the consultative council which is recommended in the strategic review report as a key mechanism to ensure that actions arising from the report will be implemented.
There are other matters which need to be addressed and I hope they will be addressed in the course of this debate, for example, the research capacity of the Department of Justice and Equality and issues around data collection which has been a real problem for anyone who has worked in criminal justice and penal reform. There are other issues around the needs of young children and families whose mothers or fathers are in prison and whose needs must be accommodated in the prison system. I very much look forward to hearing the comments of colleagues and to responding to the debate.
Senator Ivana Bacik: I thank the Minister of State for his very comprehensive reply. I thank all of my colleagues who spoke, namely, Senators Hayden, O'Donovan, Conway, van Turnhout, O'Keeffe, Ó Clochartaigh, Mullins and Mooney. They made some very important points during the course of the debate, and in particular I thank Senator Hayden for seconding the motion and referring to issues on overcrowding and conditions in the women's prison and people still being imprisoned for the non-payment of fines. She also spoke about the critical issue of economic deprivation, or poverty, which is the real social and economic context in which we are examining penal reform. I thank Senator van Turnhout in particular for raising the issue of children in prison. I also thank Senator Conway for his ongoing commitment to increasing the use of restorative justice, and Senators O'Donovan and Mooney for their support for the motion and their supportive comments on the joint committee's report, which had cross-party support and was unanimously adopted. I thank the Minister of State in particular for setting out very practical ways in which the progressive recommendations in both reports are being progressed. I am very glad to hear the Minister now has permission and approval from the Government to place the parole board on a statutory basis. This has been a long-standing issue for many of us. It is also very welcome to hear the Minister is in the process of establishing an implementation group in line with the recommendation of the strategic review group report. As I stated in my proposing speech it is the implementation of the recommendations which remains the critical issue. It is good to see the commonality of approach in both reports. There are some variations, and I was slightly disappointed of course the strategic review group did not support our recommendation on increasing standard remission, but nonetheless the strategic review group report makes very progressive recommendations on remission. Both reports clearly seek to address the issues on prison conditions and overcrowding and explicitly want to make prison a sanction of last resort. This is the key goal lying across both reports. Implementation is the key issue and I hope we will see in early course the establishment of the implementation group, which the Minister of State said the Minister is planning to establish. He stated she is considering the appointment of the independent chairperson. I am also very glad to hear she will refer the strategic review group report to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Equality and Defence for further consideration.
On the justice committee, we do have a very good record - and I thank the Minister of State for acknowledging that - of achieving cross-party and consensual approaches to penal reform. We all want to acknowledge and record the significant progress that has been made on penal reform and it is worth saying, as the Minister of State has pointed out, that the strategic review group was reporting some 18 months after our own report was published in March 2013. In that period, both crime rates and rates of imprisonment had dropped. During that period, also, we had seen really enhanced cooperation and very structured cooperation between the Irish Prison Service and the Probation Service. That was a huge factor in the changes in Finland that we looked at. The progressive penal policy that has been adopted there is based on stronger, cooperative links between the prison service and the probation service. That is very welcome.
I know the Minister for Justice, Deputy Fitzgerald, when she was launching the strategic review group report said she did not want this to be another 'Whitaker'; that it would simply be an excellent report but one which has never been implemented. We do not want to see our report and the justice committee being another 'Whitaker' which is why we will continue to call on the Minister to implement its recommendations along with the 43 recommendations in the strategic review group report. Both ourselves in this House and the non-government organisations, NGOs represented here and those in NGOs watching this debate remotely will continue to press the Minister on implementation of the recommendations, on a timeline for implementation and on specific actions that will be identified.