That Seanad Éireann calls on the Minister for Justice to expand the probation service and encourage its potential particularly in view of the increased needs in the family courts and within the prisons, and to use the probation service to the utmost effect to keep young offenders out of prison.
The Minister has a very difficult brief regarding the sanctions to be imposed on sentenced persons. There is great enthusiasm among the media, the general public and many politicians for increasing the number of prison spaces and conferring jail sentences on most of those convicted. The prison population has doubled since the early seventies but no one is suggesting that the crime rate has halved.
I applaud the Minister's efforts to improve the conditions within our prisons and particularly the building programme on which she has embarked to provide more modern prisons rather than Victorian monuments. I am delighted she signed the contract for the women's prison. This is long overdue. I remember the appalling interior of the women's prison previous to the one currently being used. I also look forward to the Minister signing the contract to commence work on the Clondalkin site. However, I urge her to look at a most neglected area — the Probation and Welfare Service.
The origins of probation go back to the latter part of the 19th century when police court missionaries, without official status, were appointed by some voluntary societies to help offenders who had been conditionally discharged by the courts under the terms of the Summary Jurisdiction Act, 1879, and the Probation of First Offenders Act, 1887, on their giving assurances to be of good behaviour and to appear for sentence if called upon.
This informal system of supervision was given legal force by the Probation of Offenders Act, 1907. That Act provided that probation could be imposed in the case of all offences punishable by a magistrates court and any offence punishable with imprisonment by a superior court. The Act also empowered magistrates to appoint probation officers and required the courts to pay the officers so appointed. This was extended in the seventies into the Probation and Welfare Service.
The Probation and Welfare Service's main emphasis is on turning offenders away from committing further offences through a system of intervention, including supervision, monitoring, counselling, treatment, training and therapeutic and education programmes. Increasingly programmes are embodying an element of retribution to society, such as community service, as well as challenging the offender to look at and change his or her behaviour.
Given the choice, most offenders would wish the approval of society rather than its rejection. The work of the Probation and Welfare Service falls broadly into the following categories. First, the preparation of pre-sanction reports for the courts; second, the supervision of offenders in the community, probation, intensive probation, community service orders, deferred supervision and temporary release; third, provision of welfare services to offenders in prisons and places of detention; fourth, the provision of services to a range of special projects such as hostels, workshops and special schools and, fifth, non-criminal work such as Family Law Court assessments and adoption reports.
It is recognised that the service is grossly understaffed and underfunded. Despite the fact that the Law Reform Commission report on sentencing, published last year, recommended that the probation service should be the primary target for additional resources in the area of sentencing, the whole emphasis regarding sentencing appears to be custodial.
Probation, particularly intensive probation, is not a soft option for offenders. It is difficult and painful to change life patterns and the service has been informed by certain offenders that they would prefer to go to prison than partake in a particular programme of intensive probation.
Probation is most suitable for people who have problems and who wish to bring about some change in their offending behaviour. A person is usually placed on probation subsequent to a social inquiry report prepared for the courts. In the light this report, probation officers make an assessment of the offender's willingness to change and, therefore, his or her suitability for probation. This is particularly important in the case of offenders involved with illegal drugs.
While no research has been carried out, the Law Reform Commission has stated that, in the experience of officers working in the courts, the effectiveness of probation is shown by the fact that a significant number of those involved do not make further court appearances.
The intensive probation scheme was established in the early nineties. The majority of its referrals are from Circuit Court orders. Others who avail of the service are prisoners on temporary release. This is a problem as temporary release is often granted on an unstructured basis. There may be no probation officer available to undertake work immediately a prisoner is released. However, this scheme tries to concentrate on serious, persistent offenders.
Phase one of the scheme involves a detailed assessment period and phase two is a four month, group work programme. While on the programme, participants are encouraged to explore, identify and change their patterns of offending behaviour. They are also encouraged to accept responsibility for their behaviour and thereby begin to exercise more control over their lives so that they also consider the consequences of their offending on the victims of crime. Participants get an opportunity to deal with their personal problems, undertake work training courses and to follow through on job opportunities. While the main focus of the programme is to challenge offenders to look at their offending behaviour, it also provides a broad rehabilitative and social education programme. It is most intensive and requires many man hours.
The scheme operates in Dublin and Cork only and it should be expanded. If, as it appears, intensive probation provides an effective means of encouraging offenders to desist from offending, the necessary resources should be allocated to it, at least an amount equal to the estimated savings from not having to keep offenders in custody. The estimated cost of keeping somebody in custody is £45,000 per year. When one thinks of the difference between that and having somebody on an intensive probation order, the expense is enormous. The scheme combines rehabilitation with the incapacitation provided by the intensity of the supervision. Whereas rehabilitation or incapacitation do not constitute satisfactory objects of sentencing in isolation, the combination works well. The Law Reform Commission is satisfied that even the most rudimentary cost-benefit analysis would indicate that the probation service "should be a primary target for additional resources in the area of sentencing".
The hard, cynical "professional" criminal is not the most common customer before the courts. On 17 April 1997, a graph inThe Irish Times compared the prison populations in this jurisdiction with those in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Nearly 28 per cent of our prison population is less than 21 years of age while in Northern Ireland it is 19 per cent and only 12 per cent in Scotland. This is despite the fact that the rate of imprisonment in the Republic is significantly lower than in either Northern Ireland or Scotland. In the Republic the rate of imprisonment is 58 per 100,000 inhabitants, in Scotland it is 109 and in Northern Ireland it is 117. This situation should be addressed urgently and is an important reason for expanding and better financing the probation service. Many young people in prison have already been through the probation service but, without being unkind, what kind of service was it? The resources of the probation service at present are such that the service is unable to undertake its tasks.
The management of offenders plan, launched by the previous Minister for Justice in 1994, highlights the problem of lack of aftercare for offenders. It states:
One of the greatest difficulties facing offenders, and especially those who have served long prison sentences, is that of coping in the community when released from custody. Very often they have no option but to return to the social scene which contributed to their wrong doing in the first place with very little prospect of gaining employment. Many may also be facing debts and other pressures unavoidably brought about by dependants during their absence. Although the prison system has no "hold" on an offender, once released, and no authority to direct his or her behaviour in any way, there is no doubt but that a proportion of offenders would welcome the guidance and assistance of the Probation and Welfare Service in helping them to resettle in the community. The Department considers that formalised aftercare arrangements for offenders should therefore be put in place.
Successive recommendations of the Department of Justice seek a better probation service.
The victims of crime, when asked their opinion, frequently stress they do not seek retribution but that an offender should reform and not behave in such an anti-social way again. Victim impact statements are being given more weight by the courts and their views on the probation service should be sought by the Department of Justice.
The Garda juvenile liaison scheme has been a great success. Nearly 90 per cent of those involved do not reoffend before they are 18 years of age. The Minister has decided to put the scheme on a statutory basis. A properly resourced Probation and Welfare Service could do just as well.