I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I thank the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, for his presence. I am extraordinarily proud to be able to introduce the Bill which will expand and make fairer access to spent convictions. I thank my colleagues in the Civil Engagement group for facilitating the debate; the Office of the Parliamentary Legal Adviser and Ms Sinead Dullaghan for their assistance in the drafting of the Bill; Fiona, Deirdre and everyone involved in the Irish Penal Reform Trust for their Trojan work in forming the policy perspective and all their support in the run-up to the debate, including at the briefing on the Bill in Leinster House yesterday; and Seb McAteer in my office who I can safely say is now an expert on spent convictions for stepping into the breach this week. As I am quite unwell, he had a week of briefings and lobbying to do on my behalf. I thank the Minister and his officials in the Department of Justice and Equality for engaging constructively with us on the Bill and the indication that the Government will not oppose it on Second Stage, for which I am deeply grateful.
At its core, the Bill is a reflection of my personal belief that people have the capacity to change, that in most cases they deserve a second chance and that in almost all cases a person is not as bad as the worst thing he or she has done. A person may find himself or herself on the wrong side of the law for many reasons such as exercising bad judgment, suffering from addiction, recovering from a traumatic event or because the key interventions required to keep him or her out of criminality were never available. Therefore, a person who ends up committing and being convicted of a minor crime should always be afforded the chance to leave the offending behaviour in the past and be offered some path to rehabilitation.
The State has a responsibility and duty to provide that path. It is a way for the individual to be supported and incentivised to change his or her behaviour and vindicate his or her right to a second chance in life, while also protecting the public interest and public safety. This pathway can be provided through fair access to spent convictions. A spent conviction, sometimes referred to as an expungement, is a conviction for a minor offence that, when certain criteria are met and after the passage of a set period of time - known as the rehabilitative period - becomes spent and does not have to be disclosed when returning to education, applying for a job or being Garda vetted. The need for a spent conviction regime is rooted in the principles of rehabilitative justice and the generally accepted principle that individuals deserve a second chance and the opportunity to move on without the inevitable negative effect involved in disclosing a criminal conviction. This is especially true for young people, on whose life prospects a criminal conviction can have a disproportionate impact. It is commonly accepted that society benefits greatly from the reintegration and rehabilitation of those with a conviction, while reducing recidivism. A spent convictions regime should have these principles at its core.
I have made no secret of the fact that I am an ex-offender. Some of that offending led me to the Children's Court and the District Court. I am an ex-offender, but I am much more than my criminal record. I am lucky that, before I turned 18, I had an opportunity to exit criminality and build a new life based on education and progression. I will never forget the feeling of filling out Garda vetting forms for some of my first jobs in the addiction sector. I always dreaded hearing that an employer wanted to offer me a job pending Garda vetting. I wondered whether I should have put my record down on an application form or taken the chance that my convictions would no longer be on my record. I wondered whether to go to my potential employer and bare all. I am an ex-offender. However, I was also a hard-working drugs worker, with a passion and drive for the job I was doing, which I felt was borne from the experiences I had, the mistakes I made and the lessons I learned, including the convictions I received. I know I was good at my job, and that I am luckier than most because my employers were understanding and gave me the job regardless of and despite my convictions. I am an ex-offender, but I am now also a legislator. I might very easily not be standing here to put this legislation forward if my criminal record had stood in the way.
In my experience as a drugs worker, and from working with people with convictions, I have seen at first hand how criminal records for minor offences have had a major impact on people's lives. How many nurses, teachers, social workers, counsellors and more have we lost as a society by continuing to punish people long after they were convicted of a crime? Since launching this Bill, I have been inundated with emails and letters, detailing story after story of people who, unlike me, have had careers, education and their lives curtailed by the limited application of spent convictions legislation in Ireland. Two young men, now in their late 20s, did not make it into the Army because of minor offences committed in their teens. Several young women have had their education effectively brought to an end by not being able to enter social work placements. One man who contacted me spent 14 years in recovery from drug addiction and has reached a PhD level of education, but cannot get employment due to the inflexibility regarding the number of convictions that can currently be spent. There are hundreds and hundreds of cases of people who no longer offend but who cannot get on with their lives due to a restrictive spent convictions regime. Behind every single one of those convictions is a lifetime's worth of pain, trauma and unfulfilled potential caused by not being able to leave an indiscretion in the past. By not offering people a fair chance and opportunity to have convictions spent, we are not only encouraging recidivism and re-offending, but losing out on some of our best assets in many fields. There are so many professions that benefit hugely from the experience of people who have had a different route through life, be it someone who experienced social disadvantage, addiction, youth crime or poverty. Whatever the reason that led a person to a conviction, people have much to offer society and we are depriving ourselves of the wealth of their experience in areas in which that experience would be most useful.
If someone is convicted of a crime, goes to prison, gets out and continues to be discriminated against as he or she tries to re-enter the workforce or access education, has his or her punishment really ended? When can we say his or her punishment will end? Will it ever end? Spent convictions offer a chance to leave behind the stigma inherent in a conviction and offer people hope that, even after a conviction and time in prison, if they stay on the straight and narrow for a set period of time they will be rewarded by being legally empowered to leave the stigma in their past. We are ultimately talking about making it a little fairer and easier to access that second chance.
How do we propose to do that? Ireland has had a form of spent convictions since the passage of the Criminal Justice (Spent Convictions and Certain Disclosures) Act 2016, but it is limited, both in practice and in comparison with other European countries. We all accept the need to get the balance right between protecting the public interest and affording the individual in question a real second chance. Our current law, however, does not get this balance right. It is not fair or proportionate, and it is not working.
We have proposed four substantive changes to the 2016 Act to broaden access to spent convictions so that more people can avail of its provisions. The changes also seek to make access to them fairer and more responsive to the circumstances of the individual. In the current Act, the maximum length of a custodial sentence that can become spent is 12 months or less, and for non-custodial sentences the upper limit is 24 months or less. This compares very poorly with other European and common law countries. In Northern Ireland the upper limit is a 30 month custodial sentence, and in England and Wales it is 48 months. We are proposing that the limit here be increased to 24 months for a custodial sentence and to 48 months for non-custodial sentences.
The 2016 Act also sets the rehabilitative period after which a conviction becomes spent at a blanket seven years, without distinction to the nature of the sentence and with no proportionality between the length of the sentence and the subsequent rehabilitative period. Through the two rehabilitative period tables in the Schedule to the Bill, the rehabilitative period before the conviction becomes spent would be made proportional to the length of the sentence.
The current Act has a single conviction limit, so only one conviction can ever become spent. If one has two convictions, neither can become spent. We suggest removing the single conviction limit by increasing the number of eligible convictions from one to two.
The Act also contains no recognition of the disproportionate impact of a conviction on the prospects of a young person, and his or her resulting rehabilitative needs. We are therefore proposing to give young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 an additional opportunity to have convictions spent and for proportionally shorter rehabilitative periods.
Those are the provisions of the Bill. They are more restrictive than I would like, but they are a start. I ask colleagues to support the Bill. The mechanisms the State puts in place to support former offenders to re-enter the workforce, education and society are important markers of our social values and attitudes towards people who have made mistakes in the past. This Bill would move us closer towards respecting the innate capacity for change people have through rehabilitative policies and is worthy of our support. I commend it to the House.