In view of the alarming increase of 8 per cent in the crime rate for last year, Seanad Éireann condemns the abject failure of the Government to halt the continued increase in crime, lawlessness and vandalism; and, in view of—
(a) the extreme concerns of the citizens of Dublin and other cities with the level of urban crime,
(b) the increase in rural crime by up to 60 per cent in certain areas,
calls on the Government to immediately allocate adequate resources and manpower to An Garda Síochána and to embark on a programme of law reform to modernise the judicial and custodial agencies.
I welcome the Minister for Justice, Deputy Flynn.
The levels of crime last year are extremely disturbing. The figures show the serious upward trend which we all feared and which we indicated in this House to the former Minister for Justice, Deputy Ray Burke throughout last year. The rate of reported crime levels is now almost back to the 1982 levels when serious drug addiction caused it to shoot up.
Crime statistics present us with the cold facts but to the people affected, whether they live in major housing areas or in small rural communities, they represent a growing and intolerable interference from criminals. The statistics present us with the hard facts indicating the failure of the Government to halt the unacceptable increase in crime rates and the failure to protect the ordinary people of Ireland and allow them to feel safe in their homes, on the streets, at their places of entertainment or at work.
While in 1982, when similar levels were experienced, the heroin epidemic in Dublin was the most easily identifiable reason for the then soaring crime levels, there is no such identifiable reason on this occasion. The reason on this occasion is the failure of the Government to give proper resources and adequate personnel to the Gardaí.
Problems arise with the courts. Our courts may have become punch drunk from the sheer volume of criminal cases coming before them. We, as a society, are moving too far towards conferring privileges on our deviants while we deny our law abiding citizens their rights.
Our criminal justice system must be looked at critically and reformed. Every day the district courts are swamped with persons charged with all types of criminal offences. Sometimes the sentences handed down to people convicted in the courts fit those crimes, but too often the sentences fall short of what one would expect. There is no clearly defined sentencing policy. Our criminal law must be codified and simplified.
Criminal trials are cluttering up the system which is in chaos because of the bureaucracy surrounding our courts. There are insufficient members of the Judiciary to deal with the level of work. Courts are cluttered up with cases which could more easily and efficiently be dealt with under a different system. Courts are cluttered dealings with committal orders, instalment orders and so on. These should take place elsewhere. The Government should establish a debtors panel or court to relieve that area. The long called for small claims court should be established without delay.
More gardaí must be made available to do the job of crime prevention and detection. There is no justification for keeping gardaí waiting through long trials just to give a few minutes' evidence. An example of this was in a long murder trial lasting six weeks; a Garda who conveyed the murder weapon, a knife, from the scene to the official examiner was required to give evidence providing the link in the chain of continuity in the investigation process. He was detained for six weeks in court to give this evidence, some of this time even after he had given the evidence. Surely with modern methods of communication such a witness could be contacted and given an hour or two notice that he was required to be in the court. The irony is that a doctor, engineer or other professional who is busy with his/her work is treated sympathetically by the court, and rightly so. They are released from attendance until due to give evidence. Gardaí should be similarly treated. They should be out on the street where they would be more usefully deployed.
For half a day each week members of the Garda are engaged in accepting unemployment claim forms. This should be done by a social welfare officer who could rent an office for half a day each week in the town or village concerned. The activities which engage gardaí outside their core responsibilities of preventing and detecting crime should be examined and allocated to those who can as effectively or in some cases more effectively complete those tasks.
The Minister for Justice's predecessor, Deputy Ray Burke, throughout last year maintained that the level of crime was under control, that his Department were satisfied with the level of resources to the garda. We now know that the situation is at crisis level. The citizens of and visitors to Dublin and other cities are afraid to leave their houses after dark. O'Connell Street, Dublin, is becoming a "no go area" after 8 p.m. People feel intimidated by gangs of rowdy youths walking the streets. We must ensure that people can walk our streets in safety. The people are angry with the current situation. They demand action and the Minister must respond.
On occasion after finishing work in my office at 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. I have walked through O'Connell Street but I no longer do so. On occasion I have felt apprehensive for my safety. The conduct of young people who act in a boisterous and intimidating fashion must be controlled. The current situation is not acceptable. Firm action must be taken against people who engage in threatening, abusive or insulting behaviour.
It should be an offence for a person to be found in a public place in a condition in which, because he is under the influence of intoxicating liquor or drugs, he is a source of danger to another person or himself. It should be an offence to use threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour. It should be an offence for a person having been warned by a member of the Garda Síochána to desist, who engage in any shouting, singing or boisterous conduct in circumstances likely to cause annoyance to other persons in the neighbourhood.
It is a sad reflection that in 1992 those who mourn their loved ones must ensure the protection of their homes while the funeral ceremonies are taking place. Funeral undertakers, in response to the need of clients, are providing a home protection service against thieves. It is a sad reflection on society that security firms, sometimes using uniformed personnel, are being hired by undertakers to guard family homes during removals and funerals. This service is often extended to relatives and neighbours of the bereaved families as they too are being targeted by burglars. Too often bereaved families come home from the burial to find their homes ransacked and valuables stolen. People are being advised by undertakers not to put cards on the door or to leave the house unattended. This is a sickening development and no effort should be spared to catch the culprits and stamp out this ghoulish practice.
Crime incidents in rural areas are increasing at an alarming level. In the Minister's constituency of Mayo, crime rose by 26 per cent last year. Cork west Garda division topped the league by recording a whopping 60 per cent increase in crime, followed by Roscommon/ Galway East with 41 per cent and third on the list is Mayo. It is ironic that these three Garda divisions have traditionally been among the country's most crime-free areas. The Limerick division, my own area, which is in the constituency of the Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Deputy O'Dea, had an increase of 9 per cent; 21 of the 23 Garda divisions had an increase in crime levels last year. It is important that the Minister should allocate more resources and personnel to rural areas where crime rates are causing extreme concern.
People living alone, the elderly and vulnerable people in rural Ireland, are living in fear. It is not unusual when visiting rural areas to see doors locked 24 hours a day with guard dogs for added protection. This is no way to live. The quality of life in such circumstances is unacceptable and the Government have a duty to tackle the problem. People should be able to live in a reasonable way without fear of being robbed, assaulted, raped or even murdered in their homes. It is time to cry halt. Resources must be given to the Garda Síochána to deal with the criminals who perpetrate such foul acts. These attacks destroy their victims and make their lives a living hell. They leave an indelible scar both physically and mentally. Such attacks too often trigger off a deterioration in health in old people which in too many cases prove fatal within a short period. This is a sad and a cruel end to a good person's life, a person who, in most cases, has worked hard and contributed handsomely to his/her community and his/her country.
I wish to pay tribute to the Garda Síochána and citizens involved in the community watch schemes. These have proved very successful in most areas. However, the success of the system in an area is highly dependent on the coordinator. In some areas where the coordinator loses interest or leaves the area, the scheme becomes dormant. No analysis has been done of the number of dormant or defunct schemes.
The Government must, as a matter of urgency, arrange for the necessary referendum to change the bail laws. The Government must use the opportunity of the forthcoming Maastricht referendum to do this. It is an excellent opportunity for the Government and should not be missed.
A new approach to Garda interrogation should be taken on board by the Minister for Justice. In our society which rightly allows accused persons the best legal advice free of charge, it is only fair that the accused should be made accountable for his or her movements when questioned by the Garda Síochána. The right to silence in these circumstances is an outdated principle which only serves to protect the guilty and does nothing to further the case of innocent persons. It is a relic of the last century when individuals had no access to free legal aid and when punishments were much harsher.
Moreover, as it stands, the right is currently a major obstacle to gardaí in their investigations into organised professional crime. A suspect can refuse to answer questions or give any explanation about matters which are put to him in the course of his interrogation. Experienced criminals do this as a matter of course and subversives are adept at doing so. While the abolition of this right would greatly help Garda investigations, it would also protect suspects in cases of over-zealous police officers who might try to extract confessions. The abolition of the right to silence would remove the importance of obtaining a self-incriminatory confession in many investigations.
The right of silence was introduced at a time when the accused was rarely represented in court and could not give evidence, but today the rules only serve to help an increasing number of professional criminals to avoid conviction. Under the new system it would not be an offence to refuse to answer questions or give an explanation but an adverse inference could be drawn from this on particular issues. Legislation similar to this has been introduced and the right of silence does not protect self-incrimination in a variety of statutory offences, especially offences under the Road Traffic Acts, like drunken driving, where suspects may be required to provide blood or urine samples and where they may later be convicted of the offence. Likewise the genetic finger-printing Bill obliges the suspect to provide a DNA sample. If he does not do so the court will be allowed to draw an inference from that.
In Revenue cases, a person being investigated cannot use the right to silence to mask giving potentially incriminating answers to the tax inspectors.
It is unacceptable and a failure on the part of the Government that due to lack of prison accommodation, hundreds of law breakers are serving their sentences on the streets. They are allowed to walk free from jails because of the chronic overcrowding. Hardened criminals are being released, in some cases to make room for TV licence defaulters. This allows them to commit further offences while they should be behind bars. Freed prisoners are being sent back to the same jails within days for being caught for crimes often committed just hours after leaving custody. This must be changed. Our prison system must be reformed. Full sentences must be served by those who commit serious offences and non-custodial sanctions must apply to those who commit minor offences, such as failing to pay small fines or debts.
Too many professional criminals have now learned to play the system to ensure they are set free as early as possible to resume their criminal rackets. The system must be changed and the scandalous situation eliminated.
Given that many crimes are committed by those under 25, there is a lack of detention centres to hold young people convicted of crimes. The Government have failed, despite repeated promises, to tackle this issue and are still no nearer a solution than when the former Minister for Justice addressed this House on this issue almost 12 months ago. Even when criminals are put behind bars the great frustration, especially for the victims of crime, is that the burglar or murderer will be out of jail after he has spent only an average of one-third of his term inside. Too often we hear of gardaí who have the experience of escorting people to prison only to find them at home before them when they return to their areas.
The Government must recognise that poverty, unemployment and education failure are the main causes of youth alienation from society, resulting in a high level of crime. This situation has a potential to grow and envelop more aspects of our society. The Minister and the Department of Education have a key role to play in this. The role of the school in deprived areas must be examined. Policies must be introduced to strengthen the schools in these areas. Achievement at school must have more acceptance in status and in the communities in deprived areas where not only family attitudes but the atmosphere in the school influences the young persons view of the education system.
In Dublin, on any one day, one out of ten pupils is missing through truancy. This amounts to 6,000 truants per day in our capital city. One in three working-class young people in our housing estates leave school without any qualifications. They either fail their exams or drop out altogether. Either way, their life opportunities are severely limited. They start life with a badge of failure. School must become important and attractive to these young people. If a person does well in school he/she will do well when it comes to looking for and getting employment.
There is a problem with young people of school-going age committing offences in these areas. A young person who has been identified as an offender will frequently be visited by the plethora of professionals. He will probably be first visited by a health board social worker, followed by a school attendance officer, a Garda juvenile liaison officer, a probation officer, a solicitor and maybe a priest and teacher. The Government task force in 1980 recommended that there should be a child care authority with responsibility for all issues affecting children in these difficulties. The responsibility for problem juveniles should be handed over to one person who would be responsible to the child care authority. The Minister should take this recommendation on board.
In urban and rural areas in general we must recognise that crime prevention is a key element in tackling the problem. We must look at tighter regulations in regard to the retailing of alcohol, especially to young people. Cars should be more secure. Car manufacturers should be obliged to introduce proper and more sophisticated anti-theft devices. The Minister must look at the policies on and sanctions of youth crime. New and imaginative non-custodial sanctions must be introduced. Sufficient places must be available in residential care only where non-custodial sanctions clearly fail.
Professional help must be available to families in difficulty. The Child Care Act must be implemented immediately. Health boards must be given adequate resources to assist families in trouble. Child abuse, family violence and alcoholism are often features of a family where youngsters slide into trouble. Proper support systems should be available to families at risk.
I look forward to the Minister's reply.