There is a strong case for accepting these amendments. They would not create an administrative burden for the Minister's Department. Not many prisoners will fall to be released under this scheme and some will be released through the normal remission period on their sentences in any event over the next two years. It would demonstrate yet again a sensitivity to the feelings of the victims of those in prison, some of whom have been convicted for serious crimes against individuals, including murder of members of the Garda Síochána. I can think of no worse scenario than being a victim of crime and meeting the perpetrator on the street, not having known that he had been released.
There are people who will not want to know this but would rather put it behind them and forget about the circumstances. That is why my amendment No. 3 provides that a written request must be received — in other words, not everyone related to or associated with a victim of a crime will automatically receive information about a prisoner's release, only if a written request is made by a victim or a victim's relative will the information be provided.
The information involved would include whether the advice of the commission has been sought about a qualifying prisoner, because under this Act it is not necessary for the Minister to seek the commission's advice in all cases; it is optional but I am sure in most cases he will seek it. Nonetheless, it is important that this information be available. If the Minister has received such advice, a person inquiring should also be told whether the Minister intends to exercise a power of release — that is, if he intends to release a prisoner. The proposed date of release and any terms and conditions attached to the release should also be made known, and details should also be given in the case of a person who has already been released.
Of all those conditions or information which might be sought, the most important for the victims and their relatives would be the proposed date of release and the terms and conditions attaching thereto. Earlier I asked the Minister whether he could apply a condition as to the area where a released prisoner might live — whether he had the power or intended to use the power to preclude a person from living near his victim or a relative of the victim. Different criteria would apply in different parts of the country — for instance, it would be problematic if a released prisoner lived in the same small town as his victim, whereas it might or might not be as much of a problem if they lived in different parts of Dublin.
If this amendment is accepted by the Minister, those who are concerned about this matter will have an opportunity to convey that concern to him.
We must further demonstrate our understanding of the trauma through which many will go as a result of this legislation and the Agreement. I have argued since the acceptance of the Agreement that we cannot pick measures from it a la carte and say “we like this and do not like that” or “we will implement this but not implement that”. It must be implemented in totality. In doing so, this House must have regard to the victims of those we will release in the next two years.
The Schedule quotes a section of the Agreement —". any qualifying prisoners who remained in custody two years after the commencement of the scheme would be released at that point". What is the date for the commencement of the scheme? Is it when this legislation is signed by the President or the date of the Agreement?
I sympathise with the thinking behind these amendments. I accept that, to the greatest extent possible, victims should be informed in relation to the release of prisoners. However, for reasons I will explain, this matter should be addressed by appropriate administrative arrangements rather than by enshrining amendments of the kind proposed in the Bill.
There is an inherent difficulty in defining a victim of an offence. This is clear in many cases, for example where a person has sustained a direct physical injury as a result of the commission of an offence. Where a person is a victim in a wider or more remote sense, difficulties arise in assessing whether the amendment would confer on those people a right to certain information. The amendments make no attempt to define the term "victim". The terms "a member of his or her family" or "interested party to" are unlikely to be sufficiently legally precise.
There is also the practical consideration that the majority of qualifying prisoners in this jurisdiction have been transferred from the United Kingdom and even if a satisfactory definition of victim was included in the amendment, there could be significant difficulties at this remove in establishing the bona fides of an applicant.
There are also problems with some of the detail the Minister would be obliged to supply under amendment No. 3. This would require the Minister to indicate whether he or she intends to exercise any power of release in regard to the qualifying prisoner. The request could be made at a time when no decision had been made in the particular case so the Minister would not have the information which, under the amendment, he or she would be obliged to supply.
I do not accept that in all cases it would be appropriate for a victim to be aware of all the conditions of a prisoner's release. It could prove the case that a condition of release relates to the personal circumstances of an offender which would be relevant to the interests of a victim. The amendment would require this to be revealed. I am not suggesting that this would be the norm in releases, but we must plan for every eventuality.
Amendment No. 2 is very vague and refers to the Minister providing a statement containing information for victims or interested parties but gives no indication of what is to be contained in the statement. Because of the type of issues I have outlined, I have grave doubts about the wisdom of trying to deal with this matter on a statutory basis. I can give a commitment we will put in place whatever administrative arrangements are appropriate to address the legitimate interests of victims in this area.
The former Tánaiste, Mr. Wilson, may have specific recommendations to make in his examination of the needs of victims. I am pleased that Members welcomed his appointment. The situation is more complicated in the case of repatriated offenders where victims do not live in this jurisdiction. I will be in contact with the Home Secretary in relation to the release of prisoners who have been transferred here from the United Kingdom. In the light of our discussions I will raise with him the relevant issues vis-a -vis victims in that jurisdiction.
We all accept the need to address the needs and rights of victims. For the reasons I have given, I do not believe this will be best done by legislative measures. However, I assure Deputies it is the intention to address these matters as effectively and appropriately as possible on an administrative basis.