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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 9 Nov 1995

Vol. 458 No. 1

Ceisteanna-Questions. Oral Answers. - Temporary Release of Prisoners.

Liz O'Donnell


3 Ms O'Donnell asked the Minister for Justice the number of offenders currently unlawfully at large, having breached their temporary release conditions, in view of the fact that in a written reply to a parliamentary question of 20 September 1995, she stated that figures were being compiled and analysed and would be forwarded to the Deputy as soon as possible. [16616/95]

It is best, perhaps, to begin by explaining what is meant by the term "unlawfully at large" as it could, mistakenly, be taken to mean that one is dealing with a large contingent of dangerous outlaws. The reality is rather different.

The Criminal Justice Act, 1960 under which most offenders are granted temporary release, provides that an offender who breaches a condition of his temporary release is deemed to be "unlawfully at large". The breach, however, may be of a relatively minor, technical nature, as I shall explain, and does not necessarily mean that the person concerned has engaged in any form of serious criminality.

What has emerged from a major survey carried out in the Department of Justice recently, the results of which have just become available, is that only eight individuals of those deemed to be "unlawfully at large" are persons who actually escaped having been in custody in a closed institution — the escape usually occuring while on escorts to hospitals etc. outside the institution.

A further 228 are offenders who absconded from open institutions. These are institutions which, as Deputies will be aware, accommodate the less serious offenders and in which, in accordance with long standing policy and practice, a more relaxed regime operates.

A further 784 offenders are people who had already been granted temporary release, but who were guilty of technical breaches of their release conditions. These breaches, for the most part, consisted of failing to sign-on, on a regular basis, at the Garda station or prison as the case may be, in accordance with the terms of their release conditions.

In other words 76 per cent of those who are deemed to be unlawfully at large are people who fall into that category because of the technical breaches to which I referred and 98-99 per cent of all those unlawfully at large are individuals who acquired that status either as a result of these technical breaches or as a result of absconding from open institutions.

In presenting the facts to the House in the manner I have, I do not, for one moment, wish to suggest that it is a matter of little or no concern that various individuals are deemed, by law, to be unlawfully at large, but it is important that Deputies and the public generally understand what exactly is involved.

The Minister's reply has confused me. Who monitors the activities of the 288 who have absconded from open institutions? Is the Minister saying they are unlawfully at large? Is there information on whether they have committed offences while unlawfully at large? Does the Minister agree that this matter has taken on a sharper focus in the eyes of the public as a result of recent settlements? There are three claims pending against the State for offences committed by people while on temporary release and settlements, involving a high cost to the State, have been made in respect of two of them. Will the Minister outline in detail the terms of the settlement made without liability, how he can justify that and the costs involved in respect of a case taken by a woman raped by a man while on temporary release?

I accept this a matter of public concern. It is also a matter of concern for the Minister and me. The Deputy referred to two cases and, while I have the details of them here, I am not sure if I can give that information to the House. We are concerned that this should not happen again. The Minister is paying particular attention to the matter and is examining the guidelines governing temporary release.

It is the statutory function of the Minister under the Criminal Justice Act 1960 to grant temporary release to prisoners on various compassionate grounds such as illness of a relative, bereavement, christenings, children's First Communion ceremonies, or to enable an offender sit examinations, to be interviewed for employment — thus helping with the resocialisation programmes for longer term offenders — or to grant daily release to employment of an offender toward the end of his or her sentence. Temporary release may be granted for different periods of time, as deemed appropriate, ranging from a few hours to weekly renewable temporary release. There are conditions attached to such releases. Temporary release always is subject to conditions but in all cases to the condition that the person concerned is of good behaviour.

Various other conditions may be applied. For example, the individual concerned may be subject to supervision by the Probation and Welfare Service; he or she may be required to report at regular intervals to a Garda station, to reside at a particular location and so on. I should point out that such temporary release ends automatically if any of those conditions is breached, when the individual concerned can be returned to custody immediately without the need for fresh proceedings even in the event of there being one day only of the original sentence remaining outstanding. This condition was laid down in the 1960 Act and is monitored continuously by the Minister.

The Minister of State and I appear to be at cross purposes, perhaps because this is a complex statistical subject. When I asked the Minister on 20 September how many offenders had reoffended while on temporary release over the preceding three years she informed me such statistics could be compiled only by way of an examination of the individual records of several thousand offenders and that this would involve the expenditure of a disproportionate amount of time. In a subsequent exchange with the Minister I established that adherence to or breach of the conditions of temporary release is not recorded; in other words, there is no record maintained of the activities of people on temporary release. Yet the Minister of State in his reply today said it would appear from the statistics available to him that many people on release are not a danger to the public while at large unlawfully because of a technical breach of the conditions. If there is no monitoring of the incidence of reoffending while on temporary release, how can the Minister continue to preside over a system which allows the possibility that many such people may reoffend, particularly bearing in mind potential claims against the State?

The Minister, when replying on the previous occasion to which the Deputy referred, promised to obtain additional information and supply it to her. The Deputy ought be pleased, though not surprised, that the Minister carried out that promise through the up-to-date information I have just supplied. I should point out that a monitoring process is in progress. That is the only reply I can give at present and it should be viewed in the context of the Minister's previous one.

Do I take it the Minister will continue to preside over a system which continues to release offenders into the community on temporary release bonds while there continues to be inadequate monitoring of adherence to their conditions of release, while accepting that the State is liable for their criminal activities whenever released temporarily? Is the Minister saying there will be no changes in the present regime of temporary release, even in the face of this huge financial threat to the State, which is liable for their activities while at large unlawfully, even if only technically?

I am not saying there will not be any changes. I have said that the Minister will keep this matter under continuous review. Clearly the unfortunate incidents to which the Deputy referred would concentrate the mind. The practice of continuing to release people, with proper safeguards, will continue as I understand it has continued since approximately 1960. We are not an inhumane society in which prisoner applicants for temporary release, with good reason, will not be given appropriate consideration. Nonetheless, the greatest practicable safeguards will be applied and, within that context, the Minister will continue to monitor the matter as closely as possible.

While the time for dealing with questions nominated for priority is exhausted, we will continue to dispose of Questions Nos. 4 and 5 in accordance with our recently changed procedures.

John O'Donoghue


4 Mr. O'Donoghue asked the Minister for Justice the number of claims that are outstanding against the State arising out of criminal offences allegedly committed by persons on full-time temporary release; the plans, if any, she has to introduce new proposals or guidelines to govern the temporary release of prisoners; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [16614/95]

There is one legal action, and one claim for damages which may result in legal action, outstanding against the State arising out of criminal offences allegedly committed by prisoners while on temporary release from prison. The legal action relates to a claim for damages arising from a malicious wounding conviction dating from 1992. The other claim arises from conviction for malicious damage and arson in 1993. Legal proceedings have not been initiated in the latter case.

The Minister has on several occasions in this House outlined the guidelines which govern the operation of the temporary release system which, I should emphasise, has been operated under statute since 1960 by successive Ministers for Justice. While the system of temporary release is soundly-based, I am also aware that, due to a shortage of prison accommodation, some offenders do serve a smaller proportion of their sentence than would otherwise be the case. The Minister does not believe, however, that this problem can be addressed by tinkering with the guidelines under which the system currently operates.

"The Management of Offenders — A Five Year Plan" which was published last year contains, in Chapter 5, a review of the current temporary release arrangements together with a number of specific proposals for the future. In brief, these proposals provide for a reduction in the number of unsupervised releases in favour of a system under which the majority of releases would be closely supervised by the probation and welfare service. The plan also provides for an increase in the number of prison spaces and this aspect is currently under active consideration.

Will the Minister of State say whether there is any difference between the criteria governing the release of persons imprisoned for sexual offences as opposed to those imprisoned for other kinds of offences?

That would not appear to be part of the question tabled and, since it would not be my intention to mislead the House, I would not attempt to answer a question of which I have been given insufficient notice.

I put it to the Minister of State that the present criteria governing the temporary release of prisoners are wholly deficient. Given the increase in serious indictable crime, does he agree there will be further large claims for damages lodged against the State? Does he agree those criteria must be changed?

Perhaps I have already been somewhat precipitate since I effectively replied to that question in the course of answering No. 3. I shall not waste the time of the House by repeating it but I can assure the Deputy the Minister is very conscious of the implications to which he has drawn my attention.

Since the Minister has replied that temporary release is granted in certain cases because there is a shortage of prison accomodation, would he accept that the underlying resolution of the problem lies in the Government reactivating the building of prisons at Castlerea and Mountjoy?

The Deputy is introducing new matter worthy of a separate question.

Not only is the matter worthy of a separate question but the question has been asked a number of times already in the House and has received a reply.

There is nothing happening in Castlerea.