Priority Questions. - “Joy-riding” Offences.

John O'Donoghue

Question:

2 Mr. O'Donoghue asked the Minister for Justice the plans, if any, she has to help society rid itself of so-called joy-riding; and if she will make a statement on the matter.

The offence commonly referred to as "joy-riding" is a criminal one under section 112 of the Road Traffic Acts, 1961 to 1984 which prohibits the taking of a vehicle without the owner's consent. The term "joy-riding" does not feature in any legislation.

The use of cars and other vehicles robbed from their owners, often used in the commission of crime, continues to be a serious problem. Usually such vehicles are driven recklessly and contribute to road deaths, serious injury and extensive damage to vehicles and property, often stolen by very young people under the age of 16.

The problem is not a new one and had diminished somewhat from the high figures of the 1980s. However, in recent months it has manifested itself graphically through the deaths of four people who were hit by a stolen car. I convey my sympathy to the families of those who so tragically lost their lives.

The problem of joy-riding is one manifestation — clearly a seriously worrying one — of the disorderly and criminal tendencies of a minority of young people, most of whom come from backgrounds in which disadvantage of various kinds is a factor. While clearly disadvantage does not excuse criminal activity it does point to the need for a broadly based response to the problem. In so saying I am not attempting to downplay the importance of the direct law and order response to joy-riding.

I have discussed this matter at some length with the Garda Commissioner and am in no doubt of his commitment and determination to tackle it head on. It is not always easy to apprehend offenders because of the attendant risk to the general public but the Garda have assured me they will spare no effort to stamp out this extremely dangerous, anti-social form of criminal activity.

There have been many arrests over the years and sentences both to prisons and to Department of Education detention centres of youths convicted of robbing cars and using them dangerously.

The Garda are deeply conscious of the need to secure the support and co-operation of the vast majority of law abiding citizens in the areas worst affected. That is why, side by side with a policy of acting firmly to thwart the young criminals involved, the Garda are and will continue to focus special attention on meeting local community groups understandably outraged at the activities of the small minority of unruly criminal elements in their midst.

Since I became Minister for Justice I have supported and funded community-based programmes, with the support of the Garda Síochána, designed to divert young people from crime, including joy-riding. Eight such schemes are in operation in areas of Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Waterford and plans are advanced for the introduction of two additional schemes in Dublin and Dundalk.

These programmes are aimed predominantly at young people and involve various activities, sporting and others, counselling, informal group work, education, group family and after-care support programmes, anti-vandalism/pro-environment programmes and other activities deemed appropriate in each of the specific catchment areas.

In addition, last year my Department's Probation and Welfare Service established the Cork auto-crime prevention scheme aimed at diverting young offenders from joy-riding and designed to teach them basic mechanical and driving skills while addressing their offending behaviour. The project is being run in conjunction with local business in the area.

The aims of these projects are to prevent crime, divert young people from becoming involved in criminal or anti-social behaviour, to improve their quality of life, to provide activities aimed at improving their life and communicating skills and personal development, and to support and improve Garda-community relations.

I have been assured by the Garda authorities they are taking all possible steps to deter so-called "joy-riding" and will continue to work closely with local communities, local authorities and State services in this area.

I join the Minister in extending my deep sympathy to the families of victims of so-called joy-riding in recent months. Does the Minister agree that one of the principal problems confronting society is that some people now engage in criminal activities in the certain knowledge that they will not have to serve sentences imposed by the courts, that the revolving door syndrome appears to have become an open door one and does nothing to deter people from committing extremely serious offences? In short, does she agree that in the past two years she has presided over a chaotic prison system?

If there are inadequacies in our prison system, then certainly I inherited them from the Deputy's party when in Government.

The same old refrain.

Though I have repeated it so often, it never seems to dawn on Deputy O'Donoghue that I am engaged in the largest ever prison building programme in the history of this State. A total of 800 places will be built, some are already occupied by offenders and the remainder of the programme is scheduled for completion in 1998. Until adequate prison places are provided we shall continue to encounter a problem. The reason is that in the years 1987 to 1994 — when I assumed this portfolio — not one single new construction programme in the provision of prison places was implemented despite the fact that crime statistics from 1989 increased consistently, yet Deputy O'Donoghue's party, when in control of the Departments of Finance and Justice, did nothing to tackle the problem.

There will be a problem with offenders serving their full sentences as there is a bulge at present. When our programme is completed I am satisfied we will have eliminated that problem which I inherited.

The Minister's reply is as familiar as "The Fields of Athenry". I put it to the Minister for Justice that prison places were provided for by the outgoing Fianna Fáil Administration in the autumn of 1994 and the Minister for Finance, in her absence, cancelled the prison programme and she endorsed that action. That is the reason we do not have additional prison places. There is no point in trying to pull the wool over peoples' eyes. The Minister seems to forget she is charged with the protection of peoples lives and property in the State and the sooner she remembers it the better.

There is an additional problem which, despite the protestations of the Minister to the contrary, has not been addressed. There is a problem in the hearing of criminal trials which in turn is sending a firm message to would-be criminals that they can get away with what they like. Yesterday, one out of five trials could not go ahead in the Dublin Circuit Court. Today two out of five trials could not go ahead in the Circuit Criminal Court. Tomorrow's list of trials in the Dublin Circuit Court has been cancelled. One trial has been fixed for December and another for November, both are in respect of serious offences which occurred from one year to 18 months ago.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:

The questioning is very long.

The reason people believe and are encouraged to believe they can do what they want is that not only will they not serve the sentence but they will not be sentenced for a considerable period after they have committed very serious offences. What does the Minister for Justice intend to do about alleviating the delays in the Dublin Circuit Criminal Court which deals with all serious crime in the city, outside of murder and rape which is dealt with by the Central Criminal Court? Will she provide the facilities to the courts to enable them administer justice speedily?

The question has to do with helping society to rid itself of joy-riding. I have a great deal of information to give to the Deputy about that problem if that is what his question is about——

——but he chose not to ask me anything about it. A number of Garda activities are tackling the issue of joy-riding. Some things have to be done to stamp out joy-riding long before cases get to court.

Money was not forthcoming to provide prison places on foot of a budget issued by a party holding power for a week or two while a decision was being made about the formation of a new Government. I invite Deputy O'Donoghue once again to visit Castlerea which is open for business. I visited the site again recently and watched the builders on site working to provide an additional 130 plus places. The Government has provided the resources to allow me provide the prison spaces and the prison is open.

On hearings of criminal and other trials I recommend that the Deputy get a copy of the recent edition of theLaw Gazette in which he will find the lawyers are pleased at the speed at which the backlogs are being finalised in the courts. I accept there are too many delays in criminal trials but the number of judges has been increased from 89 when I came into office to 101, plus two about to be appointed due to retirements and one judge doing other work for the State. Those additional judges have made a huge impact on the backlog of court cases which had been building up year after year. Effective action was not taken until this Government came into office and I got the resources from the Government to appoint new judges and build new courthouses. Yesterday I opened another courthouse in the vicinity of the Four Courts in what was formerly the Riverbank theatre. I was sorry Deputy O'Donoghue was not able to join us there. He is such a good dramatist he might well have had an urge to do some play acting there.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:

We have spent 12 of our 20 minutes on this question. I will accept a very brief question from the Deputy because I must proceed to the other priority questions.

With the greatest of respect, there is no greater prima donna in the country than the Minister for Justice.

Thank you.

On this extremely important matter to which the Minister has failed to respond adequately or to give any comfort to those who suffer from it, has the Minister any intention of having a greater level of liaison between the Garda Síochána and the communities who are afflicted by so-called joy-riding and will she accept it is desirable the Garda should have such a closer liaison with the afflicted communities?

I am well aware of the trauma and suffering that arises from this anti-social behaviour of robbing and driving cars in built up areas and that people have recently lost their lives. The Garda authorities are working closely with the local communities, the probation and welfare service and the local clergy. There have been numerous meetings with local communities in Dublin and in Cork where the most recent incidents have occurred. In Cork the auto crime diversion scheme involves a large number of local people and the Garda, Ogra Corcaigh, the Munster Motorcycle and Car Club and the probation and welfare service. There is communication with the Garda. As recently as last week there were intensive discussions with the Garda in Tallaght where the most recent serious incidents took place. Approximately 153 of the new stingers have been sent to stations throughout the country. As a result of the Criminal Justice (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act those stingers can be used now. It is an operational matter for the Garda to decide when to use them, based on an assessment by senior garda as to whether it is safe to use them. Stingers will be an effective measure against joy-riding. They have already proved effective in other instances of crime. Some 153 stingers have been purchased, 36 are available in the Dublin Metropolitan Area, eight units have been issued to Cork East, four to Cork North and five to Cork West and the remainder to other parts of the country. The Garda have been trained in their use in all those area and I have no doubt they are in use already.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:

I call Question No. 3. Some 75 per cent of the time has been spent on one priority question and that is more than adequate.

It is extremely important——

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:

I must be fair to other Deputies.

Why were the Garda not told of their availability when the legislation was passed?