That Dáil Éireann shall consider the Report of the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality entitled ‘Report on Penal Reform and Sentencing’, copies of which were laid before Dáil Éireann on 10th May, 2018.
I thank the Minister for his attendance.
In 2013, our predecessor committee of the Thirty-first Dáil published its report on penal reform, which made a number of recommendations to improve the effectiveness of both prison-based rehabilitation and the wider penal system. As I state in my preface to the report, while some progress in this area had been made since the publication of the 2013 report on penal reform of our predecessor committee, the current joint committee deemed it appropriate to readdress the issue of penal reform and sentencing, and we have made it a priority issue over the past two years. The committee was keen to identify the issues affecting Irish prisons, and we held engagements with seven stakeholder groups in this area, including the Irish Penal Reform Trust, the Victims' Rights Alliance, the Probation Service, the Irish Prison Service, the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice, the Prison Officers' Association and Simon Communities Ireland.
In the course of evidence presented during the committee's engagement with stakeholders, it became abundantly clear that in Ireland there are still many issues with the penal system, particularly in respect of prison numbers, the systematic overuse of imprisonment as punishment, and the need to promote awareness and acceptance of sentencing alternatives. It also became clear that the conditions in prisons themselves are unacceptable and that far more needs to be done to rehabilitate offenders, to reduce reoffending and to minimise the impact of crime on victims and the community. The committee's report contains 29 recommendations which, if implemented, would, we believe, help to address the issues identified regarding the penal system.
While the daily population of prisons in Ireland is average by European standards, the rate of committal to Irish prisons remains very high, with a dramatic increase in the population of women in prison and being sent to prison. Additionally, evidence showed that the one-size-fits-all philosophy, with a reliance on the closed prisons system, was found to be inappropriate to prison environments. Strategies must be adopted to reduce the overall prison population. The committee would like to see a more flexible approach to the prison system whereby there are semi-open facilities. A variety of restriction and supervision should be adopted, with prisoners engaging in more meaningful out-of-cell time. Daily routines should reflect a normal day, and regimes should be programme-driven. Accommodation across the board should be single-cell occupancy only. The committee encourages the phasing out of solitary confinement, which should be used only in the most extreme circumstances, and calls on the Government to facilitate the passage of Deputy Clare Daly's Private Members' Bill, the Prisons (Solitary Confinement) (Amendment) Bill 2016, to address this issue.
There is a particular need to address the young adult prison population, that is, those in the 18-to-24 age group.
Further education opportunities should be made available through a pairing arrangement with third level institutions and accommodation should be provided as appropriate in stand-alone housing settings with single-room occupancy, communal dining and food preparation facilities. Every effort possible should be employed to help reduce the prospect of reoffending from this age category.
The committee also believes that better facilitating family visits could motivate behavioural change in prisoners by maintaining as normal a family life as possible. In addition developing mother-and-baby units to facilitate female offenders in cohabiting with their children on the basis of the needs of the child would promote a similar result.
A final point on conditions relates to the management of healthcare in Irish prisons. Many issues arise with waiting lists and appointments. The committee recommends that a review of healthcare in Irish prisons be undertaken and that responsibility for healthcare be transferred to the HSE.
One of the focal points of the report is that of minor criminal offences, which are exacerbating the issue of overcrowding in prisons. The committee recommends adopting alternative forms of sentencing for these offences in particular, including non-payment of fines, which accounts for more than 50% of annual committals. Community-based sanctions and non-custodial sentences are often more effective and far less costly than incarceration. This was a recommendation of the 2013 report and should be implemented. In addition, people must be facilitated to pay their fines by instalment, reducing the threshold for payment and extending the repayment schedule in the Fines (Payment and Recovery) Act 2014.
As for drug offences, there is a lack of utilisation of the existing legislation whereby instead of imposing a fine or prison sentence, a court may place an offender under the supervision of a body or require the offender to undergo treatment or complete a course of education or training to improve their job prospects. The committee believes this legislation would facilitate social rehabilitation and reduce reoffending if it were utilised sufficiently.
The operation of the community return scheme, an incentivised scheme for the supervised release of qualifying prisoners who undertake unpaid community work as a condition of their early release, is supported by the committee, which heard evidence suggesting the scheme has been very successful. It is hoped the scheme will be expanded to attract more prisoners and more categories of community service.
The issue of spent convictions requires urgent address. Offenders carrying the consequence of a criminal record for the rest of their lives if they have moved on from offending behaviour must be reassessed. Certain situations such as addiction, youth or poverty can contribute to offending behaviour. The committee believes these circumstances should be taken into account with regard to spent convictions.
The report highlights the high percentage of people, approximately 70%, entering prison with an addiction or substance abuse problem. Related to this are issues of mental health. While certain facilities are available within the penal system, emphasis must be placed on ensuring prisoners have access to the appropriate rehabilitation facilities and on providing adequate resources to prison staff. Vulnerable care units should be established in all prisons, modelled on the Mountjoy high-support unit, which has seen great success in moving from pharmacological treatments to therapy interventions.
As a related issue, the report outlines the ongoing issue of housing shortage being directly related to reoffending as with offenders being released from prison into emergency accommodation, a number end up sleeping rough. Providing stable accommodation and supports would help to counteract this issue. The committee recommends an integrated cross-departmental approach to address these issues and again the housing first approach would be a good starting point.
To continue on the issue of reoffending, the report also outlines the need for prisons to have more constructive settings for preparing an offender to re-enter society. Educational facilities should be available to equip prisoners with necessary skills for returning to society. The report emphasises a focus on the mental health of the prisoner to prepare them psychologically for re-entry to society. Providing these facilities and preparing the person for re-entry to society is fundamental to reducing the rate of recidivism.
The report highlights issues regarding victims of crime and restorative justice. Consideration should be given to a new approach to penalising offenders while simultaneously assisting victims of crime. We should fine the offender and put the funds into a victim-support service. This may be a means by which an offender can avoid prison and instead contribute back to the community through the money he or she is paying towards the victims fund.
The report contains 29 recommendations. The committee took a great deal of time over the report as this is such an important area of its work and it is vital that we get it right. I believe we have got it right and I therefore urge the Minister for Justice and Equality and his Government colleagues to give the report their detailed consideration and to begin implementing its recommendations forthwith. As a society, we cannot afford to ignore this report's findings. The Government, as the vehicle for change, has a duty to heed and to act.