Skip to main content
Normal View

Dáil Éireann debate -
Friday, 16 May 2003

Vol. 566 No. 6

Criminal Justice (Temporary Release of Prisoners) Bill 2001: Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle

Deputy O'Dowd was in possession but I think he has concluded. The next speaker is Deputy O'Donovan.

I welcome this Bill. It puts into a legislative framework existing principles that have been implemented by various Ministers in various Governments over the past four decades since the Criminal Justice Act 1960. Maybe this Bill was spurred on by two particular cases – a court case and a Supreme Court decision on the Finn case. In the latter case, the obiter dictum was primarily to give a message – if I may use that term – to the Legislature to set out definitive and clear terms with regard to the criteria for the early release of prisoners. This does not give the Minister of the day any particular additional powers but it makes matters more transparent from a legislative point of view. Also, it puts into a proper perspective what various Ministers have been doing in recent years.

It is important that we get the balance right when it comes to the release and temporary release of prisoners. There is an overriding duty to protect society and there is also a duty to protect those consigned to prison having been convicted of serious crimes. Having paid their debt to society, they are presented with the carrot of early parole or early release.

Under the Criminal Justice Act 1960, there were certain crimes such as sex offences, serious drugs offences and serial murder regarding which the Minister was restricted or prohibited from considering early release and parole. The court decision changed that and the Minister cannot cherry-pick what types of cases can be dealt with under parole or early release criteria.

As spokesperson on justice and as a member of various committees during my term in the Seanad, I considered the notion of prison reform in respect of prisoners who might be recurrent drug abusers, alcoholics, or those who have, from time to time, psychological or psychiatric problems. As I understand the law, whether applied by a District Court or High Court judge, the duty of a judge is to sentence a person, when convicted, to a term of incarceration in a particular prison, if appropriate. It is a flaw that the judges are unable to decide that those who abuse alcohol or drugs or who were abused as children might need psychiatric treatment or the assessment of a clinical psychologist. The lack of therapists has been a drawback in our system and the Minister should take this on board.

At some stage in the past two or three years I found out that there were between 280 to 300 prisoners in Cork prison and one clinical psychologist assigned to them. This is unfortunate. I know we spend a lot of money and the cost of keeping prisoners in jail is frightening. We have a particularly good prison system and most of our prisons are as good as one will find anywhere, if not better than those in any part of the developed world, be it in Europe or America. We should provide more therapists, clinical psychologists and psychiatrists and introduce programmes for prisoners in need of treatment, such as those with recurrent drug problems.

Consider the principle of double incarceration. Many prisoners, for whatever reason, are imprisoned within their own minds. It is a known fact that, for some, treatment can be effective and therapy and counselling can be of huge benefit. If the prisoners come out of prison, on early release or otherwise, without having received the treatment they deserve, they will be totally unprepared to go back into society. This area deserves more attention. The ratio of clinical psychologists, counsellors and therapists to prisoners should be about 20:1. This area deserves to be looked at.

It is sad that recurring groups of people engage in criminal activity. The Bugsy Malone gang of the 1960s has been replicated by later generations of gangs who have become involved in violence, drugs and other forms of crime. The result is an unfortunate and continuous cycle of criminal activity. The current generation of young criminals are much better educated, and are far more violent and vicious. They have no respect for law and order, the Garda, society or their peers.

In the last decade alcohol abuse has contributed greatly to crime while the closer relationship between the prison population and drug abuse is frightening. I commend the Minister and other members of the Cabinet for looking at the whole question of alcohol abuse, especially among the young. I have a young family and when I attend functions it is frightening to see the numbers who frequent places where alcohol is served. When I was young it was acceptable to have a pint or two, but nowadays among the young it is a question of how quickly they can get drink into them. The Government is committed to addressing this issue. If we are not serious about it the country will face a major health crisis in ten or 15 years. The health implications of what is happening are already frightening and matters are deteriorating.

When I was a teenager we had little or no money and we considered ourselves rich if we went out with £1 in our pocket. However, today young people in their early 20s or late teens and even younger depart with €50 and €100 notes when buying drink and do not care about the change so long as they get the drinks they ordered, be it a double, a shot, a Bacardi Breezer or whatever alcopop they drink. It is a frightening development.

There is much talk about prison reform, the cost of overtime for prison officers and law and order on the streets. If we are honest we must admit that the young generation has a problem with alcohol abuse. We must be serious about tackling it. If not, the problems will accelerate, especially with the accident and emergency rooms in hospitals. A nurse in Cork University Hospital told me that at weekends large numbers attend who are bleeding, bruised and battered from domestic and street violence as a result of drink-related incidents.

The 1967 intoxicating liquor legislation contained a provision that licensed premises had to provide what was termed a "substantial meal" where they opened their doors for a number of hours to customers. As a solicitor, I recall applying to the District Court for exemptions to this provision. Its abolition was a bad decision. Some young teenagers and people in their early 20s move from pub to pub and then to a night-club that stays open until 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. where they consume more drink and alcohol without having had the opportunity to avail of any meals.

Some night-clubs are cleaning up in terms of profits. One person told me they are a licence to print money. I do not wish to denigrate them for that; people must make money and earn a living. However, if they were obliged to provide a decent meal to their customers it would have the effect of slowing down the impact of alcohol and diminish the consequences we see only too often.

Subsection (1)(a)(i) of the proposed new section 2 of the Criminal Justice Act 1960, set out in section 2 of the Bill, provides that a person may be released from prison for a temporary period to assess the person's ability to reintegrate into society upon release. That is critical. A number of years ago an elderly lady in the west was viciously murdered by a prisoner who was on temporary release. While it is difficult to protect against that kind of situation, various professionals, such as psychiatrists, psychologists and therapists should have an involvement in assessing the suitability of prisoners for release. The Garda should also have an input, while the prison governor and others involved should report to the Minister to ensure that he or she can make an educated and proper assessment. It will not be possible to achieve the Utopian situation where every assessment is right, but if the Minister has the necessary reports to hand he or she will be able to make a more balanced and appropriate decision.

There is the view in this country that a person convicted of murder should be sentenced to imprisonment for life. As I understand the law, a term of life imprisonment means the natural life of the prisoner. In some cases that can be a good thing, especially if a prisoner is unable to make retribution or cannot be rehabilitated and will, therefore, continue to pose a threat.

However, some crimes are committed in the heat of the moment and those convicted are often sentenced to terms of imprisonment of ten or 15 years. In such circumstances many prisoners undergo courses and educate themselves. They often learn new skills, such as carpentry or metalwork. Some undergo a miraculous recovery and are sorry for their crime. There is a need to consider what can be done where it is clear that keeping them in prison beyond their term, at a significant cost to the State and the taxpayer, would be of little or no use. If it is assessed that they can be moved to an open prison or are capable of being reintegrated into society under scrutiny and subject to conditions, for example, the requirement to sign on at the local Garda station every day, and the Minister, prison and Garda authorities are satisfied that an early release would be appropriate, such a development would be good for society and the prisoners concerned.

During the term of the previous Government the death penalty for capital murder was abolished following a referendum, a development that did not receive much notice. By contrast, several of the more heavily populated states in the United State retain the death penalty, which is unfortunate.

Subsection (2) of the proposed new section 2 of the Criminal Justice Act 1960 sets out the factors the Minister must consider when deciding to grant temporary release. These are worthy of mention because they are explicit. In the view of the Supreme Court, the Legislature and the Government should set out clearly and transparently the criteria to be followed by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. Accordingly, the nature and gravity of the offence to which the sentence being served by the person relates should be taken into account.

The last Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform introduced legislation to address serious drugs offences, which is a matter I spoke of at length in the Seanad. Through that legislation, a large majority of Oireachtas Members across the political divide agreed with the notion of minimum sentencing of ten years for serious drugs offences. Drugs offences are not only a national and cross-border issue, they are international. It disturbs me that the Legislature set out minimum sentences but – and I do not say this to be in any way derogatory to the Judiciary – in many instances since the enactment of the legislation, there was a failure to impose the mandatory ten-year sentence. We are elected and empowered to enact legislation, but we have passed a statute within which there is clear provision for a mandatory sentence of ten years. It is not good enough for certain judges to feel the sentence should be less in certain circumstances.

Drugs are a serious and, unfortunately, growing menace to this society. For the drugs lords involved, drugs trafficking is a lucrative business and they should be taught a lesson. The Minister may refer to the matter in his contribution. It is inappropriate that someone who has been given a mandatory ten-year sentence should be eligible for early release for whatever reason. In my view, a mandatory sentence is mandatory. When a person is caught for drunk driving he or she is put off the road for two years and his or her licence is endorsed. Perhaps the Minister will clear up the query in my mind regarding mandatory sentencing.

I had a few more points to make, but I did not realise my 20 minutes would evaporate so quickly. I am glad to have been able to speak to this Bill, which I welcome. In case the view is abroad that its provisions are new, historic and ground breaking, I point out that they put into a statutory framework the practice of the last 40 years. Through this legislation that practice is tidied up, improved and made transparent to let judges and Ministers of the day know what the guidelines and criteria are.

It may not be related to this Bill, but I have a point to make regarding Deputy O'Donovan's reference to young people and alcohol. Deputy O'Donovan is not the only one to go on about young people when alcohol is debated in this House. It always happens, but the problem is not just with young people, it is across the board. Young people's alcohol problems are perhaps more evident as they are on the streets, but my experience of ten years work in a pub and in chippers informs me that many older people create violence indoors. They commit violence in the home, in restaurants and in pubs, not necessarily on the streets. I am sure the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform will agree that it is unfair to refer only to young people. It is time we had a solid debate on alcohol abuse which concerns Departments across Government. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform is leading the charge on his side and Deputy Deasy leads the charge on our side, but the issue goes further than the justice portfolio. I ask the Minister to consult with his colleagues to ensure that we have a proper debate in this House on alcohol abuse. The food which we used to get at discos was mentioned, but it was not of a great standard and it did not help. If we are going to go back to that provision, I hope good quality food will be recommended. What was offered before could leave one in a worse state. It might cause one problems the next day if not that night.

The legislation before the House is one of a long line of Bills presented by this Government for consideration which is not of a high priority. Some of the Bills which come before the House waste its time while others should be dealt with more quickly. The Railway Safety Bill 2001 has been hanging around for ages while the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill took up a whole week of the Dáil's business, though I am not sure it was relevant or important. I worry about time wasting. I may be going too far, but this Government is either on a mission of self-preservation or it is out of touch with what the country needs. The people on the ground ask why we do not discuss issues such as alcohol which I have just mentioned. They ask why we spend so much time speaking about things which are not overly important.

While the Bill before the House has merit, as Deputy O'Donovan said, it serves only to clarify what is there already. The legislation is important as I would not like the Minister to be subjected to questions on the matters addressed in it, but Bills of this sort should be dealt with during what I call "off-peak times". I would not describe today as off-peak Dáil time as it replaces sitting days in June. Straightforward Bills to clarify existing practice with which everyone generally agrees should be dealt with on a Monday or a Friday or during a morning rather than during important time. It is often said that we in this House are out of touch and do not reflect what the people think. While this Bill has importance, in terms of what is happening outside this House, it is far from the top of the list of priorities of the people who put us here. The electorate pays our wages and expects us to address real problems. What have we done during this Dáil session to improve the lives of the men, women and children of this country? I cannot see the direct results. Will the streets be any safer because of our antics in this House? What do Joe and Mary Soap think, or have we asked them? They do not think what we do here is relevant which may be because of the way we sell ourselves. We have a chance to discuss that. Are we in this House to enact progressive and meaningful legislation or are we in an ivory tower? It is time Members on the Government benches took themselves to a dark corner to think about the promises they made during last year's election.

Deputy English should not tax their memories.

Many guarantees were given and the Fianna Fáil slogan was, "A lot done, more to do". What has been done in the last year? The Government should take some time to think about it before asking its Ministers to introduce relevant and important legislation which might solve some of our problems. The Government should think about our real problems and decide to do something about them.

At times, being in this House worries me. Its actions and those of the Government are frighteningly removed from the real world. The impression I and most people get is that we seem to be on another planet with an address at Dáil Éireann, Kildare Street, the Moon. Spending so much time on this and using up a day of Dáil time does not help. Is the Government so wrapped up in its own importance that it feels this legislation should take up valuable Dáil time? It should instead introduce legislation to reduce crime figures, put more gardaí on the beat and force criminals to pay through their noses and pockets for the crimes they commit and the hurt and pain they cause. We need legislation to release more money for the health service. Is it not more important for this House to tackle the youth drinking problem than to tweak an Act which has worked reasonably well since 1960 to suit some judge or Minister?

Apart from a few on this side of the House, no one here can see that we are becoming irrelevant to people's lives. We cannot blame the people for that. They have lives to live on busy, dangerous streets and children to raise in an atmosphere of violence, drugs and alcohol. We cannot expect them to applaud us for saving the Minister from a potential law suit or for making his job easier. We might have got more support for this Bill if it included new ideas like the right of the Minister to empty our jails during the day to put convicts working on our roads or railways. Perhaps we could bring back the old chain gang, or a version of it. It could be considered.

The National Bus and Rail Union might have something to say about that.

That is my feeling. Many things which need to be done are not being done while people are inside jails.

The Minister might consider the idea as he has been undergoing a thinking process lately.

I ask the Minister to give consideration to this matter. If he does not agree with me, that is fair enough. However, there is merit in the suggestion.

It costs approximately €1,000 per week to accommodate a prisoner. When an old person goes into a nursing home, their assets are evaluated and they are often told to rent out their house to pay for the cost. A person in prison costs hundreds if not thousands of euro per week. The logic does not make sense. These are simple questions which, perhaps, the Minister could address.

We will look after the old people.

Will the Minster of State give me a letter so I can tell them that?

I am becoming worried on their behalf.

I have a long list of people who are waiting for that confirmation.

I was in Trim last week.

Perhaps the Minister of State would come to Navan and meet some more people because many do not believe that.

We opened a new unit.

How many will it hold? This goes back to a comment made by Deputy Gallagher about a visible service on the ground. People are not seeing that. They would not be contacting my office if that was the case. Perhaps we are making progress in opening a unit in Trim, but the majority of people are not really benefiting. We should spend more time in the House discussing relevant issues.

Many good things have happened.

Perhaps the Minister of State could list them so that we can discuss them in the House.

We might have had applause if the Minister said that not one person would get out from behind bars unless he was sure that they would not commit a crime again. However, there is no mention of a person who commits a crime against a minor serving statutory time, without regard to the circumstances. There is no mention of the fact that victims of crimes are the innocent injured parties. Victims' rights are not mentioned either, despite the fact that the National Economic and Social Forum, in the report on the reintegration of prisoners, recommended that the victims' charter should be implemented regarding notification of temporary release. The Bill could have made use of that, but it was not included.

The Bill is irrelevant in many ways. Does the Minister see the revolving door returning? Is the Bill being introduced because rising crime figures mean that our prisons will be full again and that prisoners will have to be released in the daytime to allow others in? These are concerns and I hope the Minister will clarify the situation.

The Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy O'Dea, said that the Bill is not that important and is designed merely to put things in order. I wonder, therefore why we are here.

The Minister of State is nothing if not exact.

If we were on the street, we would be the first in here banging on doors, complaining and writing letters. The Minister should do me and the people a favour by getting the Bill passed as quickly as possible so that we can turn our attention to the real issues that matter. For example, why do babies die in ambulances while being transferred from one hospital to another? Why are there between 5,000 and 10,000 people homeless? Why are our streets becoming no-go areas for people, young and old? Why is our penalty points system – which has clearly saved lives – now breaking at the seams and in danger of falling apart? Why inflation is out of control? Why have the elderly had their home help services severely cut?

There are many ways in which we could raise money in the House, including selling advertising space on Government envelopes. It is a simple scheme which could raise a lot of money and we need to look at new ideas. We might not like to do it, but Deputies should consider all the envelopes that leave the House. The Minister of State can laugh all he likes, but I would go so far as to say that State cars will be next.

Some people complained when we advertised on envelopes at this time last year.

That was a different type of advertising. I did not complain about it. I urge people to pursue any initiative. Let us use that initiative for some good, although I am not saying it did any good last year because it put Fianna Fáil back into power.

Fianna Fáil should be careful of the angry public out there.

We should not be dealing with the Bill on one of our main sitting days. The purpose of today's sitting is to replace a week in June, which we are taking off. I am not sure why we are doing so. Approximately 80% of the Deputies have gone home at this stage.

I would love to know what Deputies are taking a week off.

I will not say a week off. I will clarify that because I am sure all Deputies will be busy. I mean a week off from the Dáil. What is more important? We should be here debating the problems of the country. If I was running a business and I problems similar to those the country is experiencing, I would probably not go home until I had resolved them. I would keep at it, working longer and extra hours in order to try to find solutions. We do not do that; we seem to want to hide and take time off. The Taoiseach disappears on Thursdays and we take three months off in the summer as well as three weeks off at Easter.

The Taoiseach disappears on Wednesdays.

Those are fairytales.

Why is the price of building land not being regulated by the House? The reason is that we are too busy discussing Bills, such as that before us, which are irrelevant. Perhaps Bills such as this suit the Government because they give it the excuse to do nothing while everyone else suffers from its lies and mismanagement.

Are the Government Deputies and Ministers men and women or mice? Are they just tired of being in Government? A rest would do them the world of good. Five or six years on, we are still getting the same old rhetoric. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has left the House, but I have listened to him defending his job for the past year and he keeps pulling out one Bill – the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Bill – as if it is going to solve all the problems. The Criminal Justice (Public Order) Bill proposes to fine people €300 if they are barred from a pub and they go into it, but that will not scare someone who is drunk. It will not work. The Garda could close down a premises where trouble is occurring, but that measure will not work.

On each occasion the Minister is asked about his record, he refers to the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Bill, which the House took approximately 13 months to pass. How long will it take to pass the Bill before us? Probably another year. There was another Bill before the House earlier which the Minister said he hoped would be passed by the summer. I wish him luck because at the rate we work, that will not be the case, which is disappointing.

I hate to drift away from the substance of the Bill, but I wanted to take the opportunity to state my concerns about the House and how it works because there was not much to say about the Bill. There is a worrying point which I cannot figure out and which, perhaps, someone might explain to me. Section 2(1)(c) states:

. . . where, in the opinion of the Minister, it is necessary or expedient in order to–

(i) ensure the good government of the prison concerned, or

(ii) maintain good order in, and humane and just management of, the prison concerned,

Is this a good reason to put a prisoner on temporary release?

A month before he burns the place down.

It could be. It may have been raised already, but I cannot figure that matter out.

There have been many recommendations from the forum in respect of the temporary release of prisoners. However, with regard to permanent releases, should we not ensure that a prisoner has a purpose in society – such as a job or a position in a voluntary group, in order to give him or her a role – before he or she is released? There are courses and retraining but, once people are released, the support structures are not always the best and people can fall through the net. If people do not have a role on their release, the chances are they will re-offend. Will the Minister address that matter?

I welcome the fact that subsection (9) of the new section provides that "This section shall not affect the operation of the Criminal Justice (Release of Prisoners) Act 1998.", which allows for the release of qualifying prisoners under the Good Friday Agreement. There is no need, therefore, for me to address the situation of the five qualifying prisoners in Castlerea whom the Government has yet to release and whom it is obliged to release under the 1998 Act. Now that the courts have confirmed that these prisoners qualify for release and given the Government's promise in its programme for Government to fully implement all aspects of the Good Friday Agreement, I can only anticipate that it will perform this act of completion with speed.

The power to grant temporary release to non-political prisoners is provided for in section 2 of the Criminal Justice Act 1960, which provides that the Minister make rules for the temporary release of prisoners. As pointed out by the Supreme Court in the Director of Public Prosecutions v. Finn, section 2 of the 1960 Act is constitutionally frail. It is a problem that this situation has been allowed to remain since it was originally pointed out in 2000, some three years ago.

The Bill is welcome in that it does not confer new powers, but rather provides direction to the Minister in the exercise of the existing powers. It is welcome because it enhances the Minister's accountability by setting out a clearer and more transparent basis for the system of temporary release. However, we need even more transparency than appears in this Bill. Specifically, we need a transparent assessment mechanism to set risk against balancing factors such as humanitarian concerns.

In section 2, there is a list of what the Minister must take into account before giving a direction under subsection (1). These are slightly abstract. Who is to make the assessment for the Minister and on what will the criteria be based? How does one assess, for example, the potential threat to the safety and security of members of the public? What are the mechanisms for eliciting submissions under this subsection for the Minister's consideration? Are there any mechanisms for appeal against the Minister's decision to grant or withhold temporary release?

As the Bill stands, there is no reference to directing the duration of the temporary release, the use of discretion or whether temporary release differs from early parole. We need to examine the implications of the provisions at subsection (1)(a), which allow temporary release to assist in police investigations or apprehension. To my knowledge, criminals are not supposed to benefit from their crimes. This subsection directs that the Minister may allow the temporary release of a prisoner for the purpose of “assisting the Garda Síochána in the prevention, detection or investigation of offences, or the apprehension of a person guilty of an offence or suspected of having committed an offence.” I have no problem with that, but are we going down the road of allowing prisoners to benefit from their crimes by granting them temporary release? I would like clarification of this.

Subsection (3) of the same section provides that temporary release will not be granted to a person serving a ten-year minimum sentence for drug trafficking. That is to be welcomed. There is a problem, however. Recently I asked the Minister how many people had been given the ten-year minimum sentence for drug trafficking or possession of drugs worth more than £10,000. Up to last year, it was only three people – I do not know where it stands at the moment. Even though the Minister may say that he has no powers in relation to directing judges in the courts, I ask that he point out the legislation to judges and reiterate its provisions because time and time again, in the past three years especially, people who have been caught in possession of drugs of a value well in excess of that figure – sometimes the equivalent of millions of pounds – have not been handed down a ten year sentence as the legislation, in my reading and that of others, directs. The deterrent factor is not there. The ten year sentence was introduced to deter the big criminal gangs from bringing huge amounts of drugs into the country and destroying our communities. While I welcome the provision in subsection (3) that will prevent drug dealers serving the minimum sentence of ten years from being released, we should try as a society to ensure that more of the criminal element who have destroyed most of my constituency – which has the highest population of male drug addicts in Europe – hear the message from the courts and from the Oireachtas that they will have to serve a ten year minimum sentence.

I am concerned about the provision in subsection (1)(c), that the Minister may consider temporary release necessary or expedient to ensure good government or maintain good order or humane and just management of the prison. We need to examine the implications of this. One of the Deputies who spoke before me mentioned the open-door policy. Temporary release should not be used to ensure good management or order in prisons. In the first instance, we need to tackle the huge growth in the prison population. The probation and welfare service has pointed out that it is at a point of collapse due to the huge increase in the prison population and the reduction in funding for that service.

The language of this Bill needs to be gender-neutral – throughout, a person is referred to as "he". It is to be hoped that this will be corrected on Committee Stage as the majority of people in our society are female. The colossal cost of imprisonment has been in the headlines recently, in the form of the controversy over prison officers' overtime. This illustrates the pressing need for systematic identification and examination of our high economic and social cost and low social yield policies. We need to change our policy of imprisonment to one that is more socially and economically effective. This Bill does not achieve this by any stretch of the imagination. We need proper penal reform legislation which addresses all these problems. It is a pity a Bill to this effect is not forthcoming.

One of Ireland's leading criminologists, Dr. Paul O'Mahony, has made a number of observations about our prison system. The prison population has exploded since the 1960s. Even before the current large-scale planned increases, this was unprecedented in western Europe. Only a minority of prisoners are housed in decent, modern accommodation with access to appropriate facilities, as highlighted by the Irish Penal Reform Trust, and Amnesty International in its examination of the treatment of mentally ill prisoners in this State. Many prisoners live in inhumane conditions with poor sanitation and a dire lack of appropriate facilities for work, training and education – and the rehabilitation and therapy that goes with that – and recreation. Failure to address these problems resulted in the past in the widespread practice of early release. This is one of the reasons for this Bill.

Irish courts overuse imprisonment as a sanction in comparison to other European countries. Looking at the make-up of the prison population, it can be seen that about 75% of those imprisoned were sent there for non-violent crime. According to the most recent figures from the National Crime Council, crimes against property make up 98% of indictable crimes. Ireland imprisons an extraordinary number of fine defaulters. Prisoners under 21 years of age make up 25% of the prison population whereas in the rest of Europe they account for only 5%. All our prisons have a pervasive drugs problem. The failure to create policies to deal with this problem has resulted in a high prevalence of diseases, particularly hepatitis C, which has reached epidemic proportions in the prison population. Many of those imprisoned are drug users. There should be a programme of treatment and rehabilitation for drug users.

There are more prison officers than prisoners in the system. Despite all the hype, Ireland has one of the lowest crime rates in Europe but one of the highest rates of re-offending. That is one reason our prison population has exploded since the 1990s. If we had tackled the shortfalls we might not have that rate of re-offending and we would have a lower prison population to cater for, thus being of benefit both to the economy and to society.

Our prison system has become swollen to gigantic proportions because of the over-incarceration of non-violent prisoners serving short sentences for minor offences. The report of the Irish Prisons Service states that four out of every ten committals were for less than a period of three months; six out of ten for less than six months; and eight out of ten for less than one year. We should ask whether there is a need for those offenders to be in prison and alternative methods should be examined.

Even though our prison system has been condemned for its low standards, it is one of the most costly in the world, costing at one point £50,000 per prisoner per annum. If those under 21 years and those incarcerated for non-payment of fines were removed from the prison system, it would save the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, a lot of money. It has been recommended that a reduction of 25% in the prison population over ten years could be achieved without jeopardising public safety.

The deputy director of criminology in the faculty of law at UCD has calculated that dealing with short-sentence prisoners by the use of community sanctions and administered by the Probation and Welfare Service or through other schemes would better serve justice and would save the Exchequer €62 million per year. The Minister for Finance or the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, could do a lot with that money. It would pay for extra gardaí, the refurbishment of Garda stations or fund rehabilitation programmes or the probation services.

Ireland's high rate of expensive imprisonment is primarily used to imprison young people and those not convicted of serious crimes. The main failing of the system is that it does not rehabilitate prisoners. We are not getting value for money. When prisoners are not rehabilitated, it is shown that they re-offend.

I submitted a parliamentary question to the Minister asking about the rate of over-incarceration following from his public comments recognising the inherent class bias of the present system. He replied that this was not within his jurisdiction but rather within the jurisdiction of the courts. It is our collective responsibility as legislators to ensure that the law provides the right direction for the courts on the use of imprisonment and to take action to prevent its over use and abuse.

Recently I brought a case to the attention of the Minister in which a 40 year old unemployed man was imprisoned following his failure to understand that he needed to pay a €12 dog licence. That is not justice. The system failed this man and he deserves an apology.

The director of criminology at the UCD law school has proposed a package of measures which this House should consider. He argues that there should be a greater emphasis on crime prevention and a diversion away from prosecution and imprisonment, where appropriate. He suggests a focus on restorative rather than retributive justice and a provision that prison must be the sanction of last resort for adults as well as children. Legislation should require judges to consider and rule out other options before imposing a prison sentence and they should provide reasons for their decision in writing. Prisoners should be imprisoned no longer than necessary through the introduction of a system of parole with defined eligibility periods. A system of weekend and evening custody should be considered for suitable offenders so they can remain in employment and maintain a stable family life, support their family and pay restitution. The return to prison will be less likely if policies are introduced to allow the entire sentence to be used productively to prepare the person for release and constructive re-integration.

Táim an-bhuíoch díot as ucht an tseans a fháil labhairt ar an mBille seo inniú. I welcome this Bill which proposes an amendment to the Criminal Justice Act 1960. The 1960 Act was short on specifics and does not come up to today's standards of transparency which we now expect to be applied to the exercise of ministerial powers.

The Corish case in 2000 in the High Court revealed the need to set out more clearly a set of criteria for the system of operation of temporary release or parole. The judgment in the Corish case was that the Minister had no power to refuse to consider temporary release for certain categories of offenders. The exclusion up to that date of sex offenders, drug offenders and murderers was due to the strong public revulsion and possible danger posed to the public due to the nature of these offences.

Since the Corish judgment, each case is considered on its own merits, subject to paramount concern for the safety of the public. The current practice of assessment of the risk to the public is a good one but the 1960 Act is short on specifics and criteria needed to govern the Minister's decision.

The system of temporary release or parole is essential for the continuation of a credible modern prison system. We cannot lock up prisoners to serve their entire sentence before releasing them without consideration being given, where necessary. Temporary release serves as a humanitarian approach in helping prisoners take the important step away from crime and to start to live law-abiding lives. Compassionate grounds such as illness, the death of a relative, counselling and other services generally not available within the prison system afford the opportunity for temporary release, but they must be subject to specified periods and purposes.

The judicial system does not put a huge emphasis on the participation of offenders. The legal aid system exists for offenders who qualify for it. Solicitors act on behalf of offenders. In the event of being sent to prison on the orders of a judge, one must learn to behave within the prison system. Obviously, their behaviour will be rewarded by acquiring skills which will help them to become better people and prepare them for the world outside. When temporary release is offered to these people, following due consideration by the Minister, it is the first opportunity offenders get to become responsible and accountable for their actions. It is important that the Minister should have a clear framework in place, taking into account the risk of granting temporary release, because the safety of the public must be paramount at all times.

Efforts have been made throughout the country, largely by voluntary organisations, to rehabilitate offenders and make them accountable for their actions. The Minister is aware of the community reparation project in my home town of Nenagh, in which I have been closely involved, which is being run with the assistance of the Tallaght mediation service in Deputy O'Connor's constituency. This is an effort to assist offenders to be accountable and make reparation to their local community so that they will not revisit prison. Nevertheless, the temporary release system calls on prisoners to be accountable and responsible. Those who are given the opportunity should honour it, which is when their true character will emerge.

I want to take this opportunity to commend the work of the prison service, prison officers and all those who work in the prisons. I wish to pay tribute to the probation service, in particular, which offers a service to 3,200 prisoners in 16 prisons. Some 28 probation and welfare officers are deployed in the 16 prisons. In the event of illness or maternity leave, probation officers are very often not replaced. I join with my colleague, Deputy O'Donovan, in calling for greater staffing of the probation service. These highly skilled and committed people provide a wonderful service. They act on behalf of all of us in challenging offenders in regard to their behaviour and in taking responsibility for the opportunities afforded to them through temporary release, open imprisonment etc. It is important to support the probation service for which more staffing should be provided. Deputies Ó Snodaigh and O'Donovan referred to the need for a psychological service. This is a very important service which gives prisoners an opportunity to address what is important to them in life, including their reintegration into the community.

I welcome the Bill. It has been deemed unimportant by some Members of the Opposition, which is disappointing. Nevertheless, it is important that we have been given this opportunity to debate it, albeit on a Friday evening, in order to ensure it is passed through the House and that a proper framework is put in place so that the Minister can exercise his ministerial powers in the most transparent way possible.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. As Deputy Hoctor mentioned Tallaght, I am sure I can do likewise. I am the founding chairman of the mediation bureau to which she referred and the Minister and his Department have always been very supportive of that work. I attended a very worthwhile function in my constituency in Tallaght this afternoon where the local community forum, which deals with problems relating to the buses and is a partnership between the community, the Garda and Dublin Bus, was making a presentation. There were hundreds of young people in the community centre at Fettercairn. I am just relaying this to the Minister because it is important in dealing with the business before us today to reflect on the work which needs to be done in motivating young people in a positive way. We in Tallaght have had a lot of problems with vandalism and crime on buses. This is no different from anywhere else in the country. Given that Tallaght is the third largest population centre in the country, there will be problems but I want to be positive about them and about the response of the Garda. The function held today pleased me. It is good to be able to attend such a positive event, come back to this House, represent my constituency and present views on the Criminal Justice (Temporary Release of Prisoners) Bill. If we were carrying out more community activity and ensuring as many resources as possible are put into prevention, we would not have to speak that much about our prisons.

It is ironic that the Minister took a decision today, on the advice of many of us, not to site a juvenile detention centre in my constituency on the green belt in Kingswood. I stand over that decision. It is important that we all continue to work together.

Well said, Charlie.

It is called conviviality. The Minister is very impressed with you, Charlie. It has been noted in your record and it will stand to you in the future.

The Minister knows he has my absolute admiration. I admire the work he is doing.

The Deputy admires him all right.

Unlike other colleagues, I am prepared to work with the Minister, represent my constituency, come in here day after day and bring issues to his attention. Deputy Durkan did the same in his young days. I am just following his example.

Licking like that.

I am not. I am representing the 7,155 people who sent me in here one year ago to do a job. The Deputy can ask the Fine Gael organisation in Tallaght about the good job Deputy O'Connor is doing.

The Deputy should be careful they do not ask him where he went wrong.

Did Deputy O'Connor get a letter from the prison?

I did. The Minister made a good decision and fair play to him. It is right to applaud a Minister who listens to the community, the local authority and does the job.

What about the school?

I will continue to campaign for my school and get the job done. I will do my job as a Dáil Deputy for Tallaght, Firhouse, Templeogue, Greenhills without fear or favour, which is why I am here. In that context I am happy to commend the Bill to the House, support the Minister and, at this point, to give way to him.

I just want to impart a couple of words.

I was not giving way to Deputy Durkan.

I wonder whether we could finish the debate on this relatively modest Bill which I do not believe will be opposed.

I will do my best, but I am waiting for my colleague, Deputy Neville, with whom I wish to share time. He has a speech prepared, which I also happen to have. I am sorry the Bill is not coming back to the House for another day. I want to make a quick comment.

I have taken an interest over the years in the temporary and early release of prisoners. One requirement must be borne in mind and a number of other speakers have referred to it. It is not the question of expediency but of whether it is right to release the prisoner at a particular time. One must forget about expediency, numbers and costs and think about the general good of the public who will have to suffer the consequences if something goes wrong.

I have studied the Bill with care. The Minister does not want me to go through it now but I would take great pleasure in going through it in detail. I have had occasion in the past to make a case on behalf of a family where it was felt that the prisoner could be released because he had suffered remorse and had reformed. I found it difficult to get a dramatic response in such cases. On the other hand, however, I have seen dramatic results in questionable cases. The Minister is correct that there must be a standard format which can be applied and that does not err. The release should not take place just for reasons of expediency.

I am disappointed that the debate on the Bill is to conclude this evening. The Minister might consider it urgent but if it was that urgent the Bill should have been brought to the House at some earlier stage between last November and now. My colleague, Deputy Neville, wishes to contribute. This debate does not have to conclude today, given that it was November when the Bill last came before the House.

I ask Deputy Neville to consider concluding the debate this evening. The Bill seems to have all-party support and whatever amendments are required should be made on Committee Stage.

Records and research show that up to 78% of people who are put into solitary confinement in padded cells are mentally ill. This is a serious problem. It is so serious that I must criticise the Government. However, it is an international problem as well as an Irish problem. Up to 40% of people who are in prison should be in a mental hospital. I have gathered some international research on this but, to facilitate the Minister, I will not discuss it in detail. I have seen the padded cell in Mountjoy.

It is very unpleasant.

It is. There is just a mattress, a blanket and a slop out, and sometimes that is not there. Of the people who are put in that cell, 78% suffer mental illness, are suicidal or are psychotic and in need of psychiatric help. They do not get it. That has been the case since before the Minister took office.

I can offer some examples. A person was 12 days in solitary confinement because of depression and self-mutilation. Another was there for six days for self-mutilation and another was there for five days for self-inflicted wounds. This information comes from case studies. Approximately 78% of entrants into padded cell isolation units are clearly suffering some level of psychiatric or psychological disorder. To use these cells as a substitute for appropriate medical or paramedical services is a scandal. It is a denial of prisoners' human rights.

The Minister should also look at the jail alternative programme that has been working in the United States. I have studied what has happened in Alaska and the Irish Penal Trust has also examined it. Special courts were set up for the mentally ill by the Department of Justice and the Department of Health and Human Services. The judge is trained in the mental health area to examine the offender and to get the necessary reports. He or she can make a decision that the person has a mental condition and that there should be an alternative to jail by way of a programme which would treat his or her problem.

Research into the pilot study in Alaska has shown that there is less recidivism, a reduction in crime, a reduction in the number of people in prison and a saving to the state. It has all the ingredients – it is cost effective and deals with the prisoner's problem. Society, the Government and the Minister, as head of the system, should seriously examine what is happening in this area and develop an alternative system to deal with people who are mentally ill.

Deputy Neville made two points of considerable importance. The first related to padded cells. I have visited a number of prisons and seen the padded cells. After my first visit to a padded cell I formed the view that they had to be changed. I have requested the director of the Irish Prisons Service, Seán Aylward, to prepare a report on replacing these cells with bright, sunlit observation units. The cells the Deputy saw have been criticised on a number of occasions by the United Nations committee on torture. I expect to receive proposals in the next few weeks for changing these cells throughout our prison system. That is one element of progress.

With regard to the broader issue of diversion of people who are suffering from personality, psychological and psychiatric problems from the Irish Prisons Service, I will take on board Deputy Neville's and other contributors' remarks during this debate. There is a need for a statute which would set out sentencing principles on a rational basis. I am not ignoring the point about the fasttrack channel mentioned by Deputy Neville for people who have personality, psychiatric or psychological problems. Generally, however, I accept the point made by Deputy Ó Snodaigh that we must have a system which regards imprisonment as the last resort and which actively explores every other alternative before sending people to jail, except in the most obvious and outstanding cases where that would be redundant.

I thank Deputies for their contributions. This measure has been around for some time and is one of the less headline grabbing, housekeeping exercises with which this House must deal. I look forward to the Committee Stage debate. If worthwhile amendments are proposed on that Stage, I will be glad to accept them in a spirit of partnership. Clement Attlee was described by Winston Churchill as a modest little man with a lot to be modest about. This is a modest Bill and should not be the subject of significant parliamentary delay although it should, of course, be the subject of adequate parliamentary scrutiny.

Question put and agreed to.