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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 20 Apr 1989

Vol. 388 No. 10

Ceisteanna—Questions. Oral Answers. - Community Service Orders.


asked the Minister for Justice the reason, in view of the overcrowding in our prisons and the growing cost of custodial sentences, greater use is not made of community service orders especially for minor offenders, first time offenders and fine defaulters; and if he will make a statement on the matter.


asked the Minister for Justice if fine defaulters could be more appropriately dealt with by the use of community service orders as an alternative to imprisonment which costs the State up to £600 per week for each prisoner; and if he will make a statement on the matter.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 5 and 9 together.

Since the scheme was introduced in 1985 approximately 4,000 community service orders have been made and I am generally satisfied with the operation of the scheme. I have previously made clear my wish that the scheme be availed of as an alternative to imprisonment to the widest possible extent. The House will appreciate, however, that the extent to which community service orders are made under the Criminal Justice (Community Service) Act, 1983, is a matter for the courts.

A change in legislation would be necessary to enable community service to be substituted for imprisonment in the case of fine defaulters. While I will keep this matter under review, such a change would involve a departure from a central feature of the present scheme in accordance with which community service may be imposed only in cases where the court, but for the availability of community service, would have deemed a custodial sentence, rather than a fine or other noncustodial sanction, to be the appropriate penalty for a particular offence. This feature of the scheme was designed to ensure that community service operated as a genuine alternative to custody, rather than as a replacement for other non-custodial sanctions and this is an aspect which would have to be borne in mind in the consideration of any proposals for amending the legislation governing the scheme.

I should mention that there is no evidence to suggest that the use of community service in the case of fine defaulters would significantly ease pressure on custodial accommodation. For example, on 1 March 1989 only 17 offenders were serving sentences exclusively for non-payment of fines and all but two of these were being accommodated at "open" prisons.

Given that two probation or community welfare officers could be employed for the cost of keeping one prisoner in prison for one year, and the undoubted success of the scheme in terms of keeping people out of prison, would the Minister explain why the number of probation or community welfare officers has been allowed to drop in the past year? Would the Minister not agree that there seems to be empiric evidence that despite his praises for the service, which are well earned, in practice the Department have allowed these services to contract rather than expand?

I think I have already made it very clear during the course of my reply — which I believe was a very comprehensive reply to the questions from Deputies Mac Giolla and Kennedy — that community service is a sanction available to the courts and it is a matter for them to decide whether it is appropriate in a particular case. Generally speaking, except in cases where there is a mandatory sentence of imprisonment, such as life imprisonment for murder, a court can impose a sentence of community service if it deems it appropriate. Of course, I would welcome more use of this scheme. Let me say that the Deputy should not forget that I was the one who got the scheme up and going in the earlier stages of my involvement with the Department of Justice. I will do everything and anything to encourage the use of a scheme because not alone can I see the economics of it but the common sense of it.

Would the Minister accept that more probation and community welfare officers is the answer?

There is no restriction whatever on the use of the scheme, as I said it is a matter for the courts.

They are completely overworked.

I take on board what the Minister has said that on a particular day only 17 prisoners were in prison for defaulting on fines, but I ask the Minister to consider the difficulty that these sentences are very short, often five day sentences, and that when taken over a year they would represent a great number of prisoners and therefore the cost would be commensurate. Would the Minister not consider that a meeting with the Judiciary might be appropriate in order to alert them to his wishes? Many fines are imposed for anti-social, but non violent offences and therefore the changes in the legislation required should not pose such a great difficulty.

I do not interfere with the functions or duties of the Judiciary in any shape or form. I know that is as it must and should be. However, a number of months ago when I was dining with members of the Judiciary I availed of the occasion, when the matter was being discussed in a very loose and informal way, to encourage the use of community service orders. I spoke with members of the Judiciary who were very involved in this area and in my view there cannot be any misunderstanding with regard to the position and what I would like it to be.

Would the Minister not agree that there is unanimous agreement that community service orders are a means of punishment without putting people into prison but that a vital cog in the wheel as to whether a community service order should apply in a particular case is whether the judge has a pre-sentencing report in front of him prepared by the probation and welfare officers? Unless these people are available to provide that service to the judge, we will not have the number of community service orders that should be applied.

As I have said, it is the court who decides who will be dealt with under the community service orders. I believe it is the view of everybody in this House that we should have greater use of community service orders. I will take on board the comments that have been made during the discussion here this afternoon and will have the matter considered by my officials. When I am advised as to the validity of the comments made this afternoon, perhaps we can have a further discussion on the matter.

Will the Minister look into the question of manning levels?

I will look into all matters, and even you comments, Deputy McCartan, will be looked at.

The Minister studiously avoided my comments earlier on.

Get out of that.