, Limerick East): I move: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time”.
A White Paper dealing with community service was published in June 1981. A Private Member's Bill introducing community service was presented to this House on 16 June 1982. The following day a Government Bill which also provided for the introduction of community service was presented to the House.
Before going on to talk about the Bill itself, I should like to refer to one or two problems which face us in dealing with offenders convicted by the courts.
The first is that the courts do not always have available to them appropriate sanctions to suit individual cases. For example, case arise where the courts for one reason or another consider, even where the offence may be a serious one, that a sentence of imprisonment or a fine is inappropriate but yet feel that the offender should repay society in some way for his wrongdoing.
In some of these cases community service may well be the answer. However, community service apart, I would favour giving the courts as wide a range of sanctions as possible — provided always, of course, that they are of a practical nature. I am open to any proposals in this regard, particularly to any proposals which would operate as an alternative to a custodial sentence.
This brings me to the second problem which I should like to mention, namely, the difficulties being encountered in providing adequate accommodation for those offenders committed to custody by the courts.
The choice of sentence in each individual case is, within the parameters laid down by the law, a matter for the courts. To that extent, therefore, the number of offenders committed to custody is determined by the courts. The number of offenders being committed has risen over the past decade or so but the increase has not been significant. I want to make it clear that in referring to this matter I do not imply any criticism of the sentencing policy of the courts.
Unlike prisoners in many other countries in Western Europe, most of our prisoners enjoy the relative comfort of a cell each. It may not be possible to allow this situation to continue. Deputies will be aware that it has been necessary in some instance to release prisoners back into the community before their normal release date. Usually prisoners who are released prior to their normal release date are released under the supervision, sometimes under the intensive supervision, of the Probation and Welfare Service. In cases where prisoners have been released because of lack of accommodation it has not been possible to provide this supervision.
However, I would hope that the accommodation problem will ease soon. Loughan House will shortly be reverting to usage within the prison system and the second wing of Cork Prison will also be coming into use fairly soon. Apart from this extra accommodation, community service should help to ease the problem. I would be cautious, however, about any suggestion that community service will bring about a reduction in the prison population but it should at least help to contain any increase in the numbers likely to be committed to custody.
Now I return to the Bill itself. The purpose of the Bill is to provide the criminal courts with a further sanction which they may apply in appropriate cases. Stated very briefly, the Bill provides that when a person is convicted of an offence for which the court considers that in the ordinary way the appropriate sentence would be one of imprisonment, the court may, with the offender's consent, instead order him to perform a specified number of hours of unpaid work. The work contemplated is work of a kind that will benefit the community but that people cannot readily be got to do in the ordinary way for pay. It will generally have to be performed within a period of 12 months from the date of the order. The work will be done under the general supervision of the Probation and Welfare Service of my Department.
First of all, let me say a few words about the origin and background to community service as a court sanction. The idea of making a wrongdoer compensate his victim or, indeed, the wider community is a very old one but the concept of community service as a requirement of an order of a court is relatively new. As far as I am aware, Britain was the first European State to introduce community service as a requirement of a court order, in 1973.
It was introduced there following recommendations made by a sub-committee of the Advisory Council on the Penal System, a body concerned with the penal system in England and Wales. That sub-committee of distinguished lawyers, academics, sociologists and public servants considered, for four years, what changes and additions might be made to existing non-custodial penalties, disabilities and other requirements which may be imposed on offenders. The committee reported in June 1970 and legislation was enacted in 1972 to introduce community service and re-enacted in 1973. Community service was introduced in particular areas on a pilot basis and has been extended since to the whole of Britain. Since its introduction there it has been very carefully monitored and there appears to be general satisfaction with it, though there have been some difficulties. I make these comments because I think it is important for us to see the care with which this new idea was introduced in another country. This Bill which we are debating here today coincides, to some extent, with the relevant British legislation although the opportunity has been taken to improve where possible, in the light of British experience on the corresponding British legislation. Community service legislation was extended to Northern Ireland in 1976 by an Order in Council which came into operation there three years later. It has been introduced also, or is about to be introduced, in a number of other European countries as well as in the United States of America, Canada and New Zealand.
In fact, in one sense we have had a type of community service in this country for the past decade. Prisoners are released under the control and guidance of prison officers to do work for the community which would not otherwise be done; examples of the kind of work which prisoners have done are the construction of a scouts' hall in the Dublin area and the refurbishing of a centre in Dún Laoghaire for the treatment of persons with alcohol problems or alcohol-related problems.
Although the number of prisoners released under this scheme is small in the context of the whole prison population, nevertheless the results have been encouraging and the public reaction to it has been very favourable. The Bill, of course, deals with offenders at the other end of the spectrum, that is, pre-prison stage, since one of its aims is to keep out of prison offenders for whom custody is not essential.
Community service as a court sanction has a number of advantages. For example, it is of advantage to the offender since the making of the order will require his consent and thus he will be given a say in the way in which he will repay the community for his criminal activity. As the order will be non-custodial the offender can continue with his education or employment while fulfilling the obligations of the order in his spare time. There will be the minimum disruption of the offender's family life and if the order is used as an alternative to a custodial sentence it should keep the offender from associating with experienced offenders.
There is the advantage to the community in that the community service order will provide an opportunity to have useful work done which might not otherwise be done. When I say that only work which would not otherwise be done will be undertaken I mean work which cannot be done because of lack of funds. It is certainly not the intention that work which would otherwise fall to be done by a paid work force would be undertaken. The committee to which I shall be referring shortly may be given a role in seeing that appropriate work is made available.
As I see it, examples of the kind of work which would be involved would be helping the disabled and the old with some of the problems which they have to face in dealing with their incapacities, or helping organisations both voluntary and statutory which provide assistance for those people. Other examples of the kind of work which could be undertaken under a community service order are set out in the White Paper to which I have already referred.
There is also the advantage that the courts will be provided with an additional power of dealing with offenders by providing for a sanction suited to the crime. In some other jurisdictions rather striking use has been made of the principle. For example, state and municipal courts in the United States of America order traffic offenders to carry out work in hospitals and in the Federal Republic of Germany juvenile courts can order young offenders with alcohol problems to help in homes for inebriates. However, the success of community service orders does not necessarily depend on any such close connection between the nature of the crime and the punishment. Finally, there is, of course, the important advantage that, applied as an alternative to a custodial sentence, community service orders should slow down the rate of increase in the number of offenders being committed to custody.
New ground is being broken here in many ways, not the least of which is that the community is being given an opportunity to involve itself in dealing with its members who step out of line. The Bill will not achieve its purpose unless the community is prepared to play its part. I can appreciate that some people may be apprehensive about offenders being put to work in the community, particularly since it may involve them, for example, in working in people's homes. In the Bill I have tried to achieve a situation, so far as this can be achieved, where there is little or no risk to the ordinary members of the community by reason of the fact that offenders are sent to work among them.
First, community service will not be an option in respect of crimes for which the law has provided a mandatory sentence. This excludes offenders convicted of murder. Secondly, the judge dealing with the case is required before making his decision to satisfy himself that the offender is a suitable person for community service and for this purpose to consider a report about the offender prepared by a probation and welfare officer. As I have already mentioned, the offender while doing his community service will be under the general supervision of a probation and welfare officer. I believe these safeguards are adequate and should allay any fears which people might have on this aspect of community service.
I might add here that it is a matter for the Probation and Welfare Service to satisfy the court that arrangements can be made for the offender to perform work under a community service order. Once the order is made the service will have the responsibility of ensuring that the offender carries out the work. It may be necessary for the service to employ people either on a paid or a voluntary basis to supervise the actual performance of the work. Ideally, these supervisors would have some expertise or experience in the performance of the type of task involved. In those circumstances, apart from providing necessary supervision, those supervisors should be able to ensure that a reasonable standard of work is maintained.
In both Britain and Northern Ireland there are committees or boards vested, to varying degrees, with responsibility for community service. The Northern Ireland Probation Board, of which there is only one, is somewhat similar to the British committees. Our situation is, of course, different from that obtaining in either of those jurisdictions. Our Probation and Welfare Service is organised on a national basis and is directly under the control of the Minister for Justice, always bearing in mind, of course, the individual probation and welfare officer's responsibility to the courts in matters pertaining to the courts' functions.
However, with a view to involving the community in the operation of the scheme here, I am considering the feasibility of establishing a committee to monitor the operation of the scheme and to advise on any problems which may arise in that regard. They would also advise on possible improvements to the scheme. The committee, if established, will be representative of the various interests involved, for example, the voluntary and official social aid groups, Judiciary, the trade unions, employers, and so on. Indeed, I am happy to say that the Irish Congress of Trade Unions have already indicated to my Department their general approval of this scheme. In the course of implementing the scheme I expect it will be necessary for the Probation and Welfare Service to have further consultations with the trade union movement particularly at local level.
An important aim of the Bill is to try to ensure that compliance with the community service order does not jeopardise the offender's employment or his availability for employment or unduly disrupt his family life. The Bill, therefore, provides that directions as to the times at which an offender may be required to do the work shall, so far as practicable, avoid any interference with times the offender normally works or attends school, and the Bill is framed on the basis that the work will be carried out in the District Court district where the offender resides. If he fails to comply with the order, proceedings may be taken against him for failing to comply with the order without reasonable excuse and he may be fined up to £300 without prejudice to the continuance of the order.
There is the alternative method, of course, of dealing with the offender for failure to comply with a community service order: he can be returned to the court which made the order and dealt with there for the original offence. The court to which he is returned may revoke the order. This might be appropriate where the offender had almost completed the order but for good reasons could not complete it. On the other hand, if the offender refused to do his community service the court could revoke the order and deal with him for the original offence as if the community service order had not been made in the first instance.
The Bill also provides that if the offender moves from one part of the country to another — for example, in the course of his employment — the community service order may be amended to allow him to do his community service, as I have already stated, in the area to which he has moved.
The Bill provides for a review of the community service order where circumstances have changed since the order was made and the interests of justice dictate that it ought to be reviewed. The review will be carried out by the District Court in the area where the offender resides. An example of where an order might be reviewed in the interests of justice could be where the offender, because of deterioration of his health or for family reasons, was unable to continue with the work.
Before I finish, there are perhaps a couple of provisions of the Bill which I should specifically mention because they seem to draw most reaction from those consulted on the proposals.
It is a requirement of the Bill that the offender must have consented to the making of an order. It has been suggested to me that, that being the case, few orders are likely to be made. Let me explain why this requirement has been included in the Bill. First, it would be highly unlikely that an offender would comply with the order unless he accepted it in the first instance. Secondly, it is important that we do not breach even the spirit of International Conventions dealing with forced labour to which we have subscribed. I believe offenders will consent to the making of community service orders: after all, the alternative is imprisonment or detention. I believe offenders will see the positive aspect of community service as against a custodial sentence.
It is also a requirement of the Bill that the maximum and minimum periods of work under community service orders shall be 240 hours and 40 hours respectively. These might be thought to be arbitrary figures. When the British sub-committee considered this particular aspect of community service they recommended a minimum of 40 hours and a maximum of 120 hours. However, in the course of the passage of the Bill through Parliament there the upper limit was raised to 240 hours.
It is the view of many observers and, indeed, of practitioners involved with community service there that offenders put on very long hours tend to break down and end up in prison anyway. An order requiring very long hours could influence an offender as to whether he should continue to comply with the order. Furthermore, supervising officers tend to make unjustifiable allowance for offenders who just cannot complete their long number of hours. Some offenders would, no doubt, prefer a short sentence of imprisonment to a community service order which would require them to work all their spare time over a long period. However, these time limits are not sacrosanct and there is, as far as I can discover, no real scientific basis for them. I am, therefore, prepared to consider any constructive suggestions in regard to them.
Finally, the Bill provides that it shall come into operation on such day as the Minister for Justice by order appoints. The selection and necessary training of staff for this new scheme and the making of necessary rules and regulations will take some time but I can assure the House that there will be no unnecessary delay in bringing the Bill into operation.
On this basis, I commend this Bill to the House.