The Criminal Justice (Spent Convictions) Bill 2012 provides that, subject to certain conditions, somebody who has been convicted of a minor offence will not be required to disclose it when applying for a job. There is a great line at the end of "Macbeth" when Macbeth considers the wrong he has done and says:
I am in blood
Stepp'd in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o'er:
In other words, it was easier to continue committing crimes than to start over. There is something wrong if it is easier to continue in crime than to start a new life. If we are serious about reducing the level of recidivism and stopping the revolving door, we have to act. Cuirim fáilte roimh an mBille, toisc go dtugann sé seans nua do dhaoine a dhéan dearmad agus a bhí ar an mbóthar mícheart tosú ar an mbóthar ceart, but I do not think it goes far enough. The Bill provides for exceptions such as sexual offences and other serious offences tried by the Central Criminal Court. I acknowledge the need for the disclosure of convictions for those who work with children or vulnerable persons. However, we do not want to preclude those who pose no threat to children or vulnerable persons. Convictions will also have to be disclosed when individuals apply for taxi and private security licences. I understand the taxi issue has been discussed previously in a different context, but concerns have been expressed that the same regulations will apply to all applicants, regardless of country of origin.
We know the phrase "commit the crime and do the time", but every opportunity should be given to individuals to start afresh once they have faced up to their punishment. If we are serious about preventing recidivism, we must get such individuals into productive employment at the earliest opportunity. The seven year wait in the case of a custodial sentence of up to 12 months is too long, as is the period of three years in the case of a fine of up to €500. Research indicates that the optimal time for a clean slate is just after completing a sentence. The sooner an offender gets a job, the higher the odds that he or she will not reoffend. As a representative for Dublin Central, one of the biggest prisons in the country, Mountjoy Prison, is in my constituency. People from certain parts of Dublin Central make up a disproportionate number of those who go to jail. I have known teenagers from my youth club days, particularly young boys, who I am sure would not have reoffended if jobs had been available for them when they left prison after their first offence. I doubt that waiting up to seven years for a conviction to be considered spent will help a young person to stay out of jail.
The Penal Reform Trust made an interesting submission on the Bill. It gave the example of person A who received a nine month sentence which was suspended for two years but who is still feeling the effects 14 years later. He is working abroad and wants to return to Ireland, but his criminal record defines what he can do. Person B received a fine for possession of cannabis 20 years ago and is still precluded from working with children. That person feels demonised for a mistake made a long time ago. The trust believes that where an individual is given an entirely suspended sentence which is not subsequently revoked, it should be treated as a non-custodial sentence. The issue of isolated incidents must be taken into account. Somebody who makes a mistake or a single transgression for a minor offence should not receive a life sentence which defines what he or she can do for the rest of his or her life.
Section 258 of the Children Act 2011 states offences committed by people under the age of 18 years can be considered spent under certain circumstances. This is an acknowledgement that past behaviour is not indicative of future behaviour. I do not see why that principle cannot be applied to older offenders. Tá aithne agam ar dhaoine ó mo dháilcheantar a bhí i bpríosún. Thóg siad gach seans a fuair siad san bpríosún i gcomhair oideachais nó i gcomhair oiliúna. Tháinig siad amach as an bpríosún i bhfad níos fearr agus réidh chun leanúint ar aghaidh lena saoil. Caithfimid cabhrú leis na daoine sin agus gan bac a chur os a gcomhair amach. Perhaps if we lived in a society that was equitable and fair, nobody would need to be afraid to reveal a past conviction.
I acknowledge the work of the Mercy Law Resource Centre which advocates that the proposed spent conviction scheme be extended to the provision of publicly funded housing by local authorities. Its submission which has merit suggests only information on unspent convictions should be disclosed to a local authority. It also calls for an extension of the equality legislation to include a prohibition on discrimination on the grounds of a past criminal conviction and recommends the establishment of an independent body with enforcement powers to investigate complaints under the proposed scheme. This will be needed if we are to combat the issue of homelessness among those who come out of prison. There is a strong link between homelessness, crime and reoffending. Homelessness can lead to crime and being released from prison can lead to homelessness in the absence of a proper housing strategy. It is vital that we stop that cycle. A recent survey found that 33% of Irish female prisoners in Dóchas and 35% of male prisoners were homeless after release.
In my constituency anti-social behaviour is prevalent in certain housing estates. I support the system of estate management checks, but we cannot exclude individuals from local authority housing on the basis of information from the Garda without taking into account its relevance, accuracy or seriousness. We must differentiate between different crimes. I am concerned that the information provided by the Garda includes not only criminal convictions but also cautions, warnings, investigations without charge, pending investigations and dismissals under the Probation Act.
Some of these minor crimes result from addiction and alcoholism, but those who deal with their issues, attend rehab services, complete the 12 step programmes and have turned their lives around towards sobriety may not be housed by the local authority if they have a conviction, a sentence, a fine or a caution relating to that drug or alcohol use. For this reason, people coming out of rehab services or prison may not be housed and will move into emergency accommodation. This is very expensive and not always appropriate because it means they are mixing with people in a state of addiction, which will not help their recovery. They often end up homeless and the cycle begins again. I would like to see the Bill extended to include the provision of housing in a balanced and fair way.
With regard to enforcement powers and penalties, the enforcement-investigation powers of the Data Protection Commissioner should be extended to include complaints under the scheme. There must be some penalty system or enforcement will not be effective. A scheme that aims to facilitate the reintegration of ex-offenders into society must be welcomed. However, the gaps in the proposed legislation must be addressed. The Minister spoke about not doing enough, but the Bill only goes just a short way in this area.
I would like to mention two projects. The first, not in my constituency, is called Care after Prison in the Dublin 2 and Dublin 8 areas. This project is a partnership between a group of people, the Carmelite community and the Dublin YMCA. In the past year and a half it has worked with over 160 ex-offenders. It provides a range of services, including counselling and peer support. It has provided from its own resources a highly committed and motivated experienced team which provides information and support, whether to do with counselling, housing, training or education. The recidivism rate for those participating in the project is 0%. The budget for the project in the past year was €29,400, a small proportion of which came from the local authority. If we are serious about preventing recidivism, this is a project that works and I see no reason not to look at it more seriously. It costs €14,000 to keep a person on methadone for one year. We have a project that is working to help keep people totally drug free, saving €14,000, but that money is not being returned to it to help more people to become drug free.