Thursday, 3 October 2019

Questions (1)

Jim O'Callaghan


1. Deputy Jim O'Callaghan asked the Minister for Justice and Equality if the findings of the recent study by the CSO on prison recidivism which found that almost half of prisoners here went on to commit another offence within three years of their release will be addressed; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40229/19]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Justice)

The Minister will be aware that last week the Central Statistics Office published a report on recidivism in the Irish prison sector. It details the number of repeat offences committed by people after their discharge from prison. The results are alarming. What proposals do the Minister and the Government have to address our problem with repeat offenders?

I thank the Deputy for the question.  Public safety is an absolute priority for me as Minister for Justice and Equality.  Working to reduce reoffending and minimising the risk of further harm to victims and society through the implementation of an effective and evidence-based penal policy is a key part of that task. I welcome the CSO's publication of last week's report, which is part of a series dealing with reoffending following imprisonment and probation interventions.  It should be noted that this study shows a significant decrease in prison recidivism and clearly demonstrates that recidivism rates are on a downward trend. 

The report covers a group of 1,000 offenders released from prison in 2011 and 2012 and follows them up to the end of 2014 and 2015, respectively. The recidivism rate stood at 55% in 2007, but the report shows it fell to 45.8% in 2012.  Overall, this represents a decrease of 9.3% over a period of five years.  I was also pleased to note that the CSO study published last June on offenders sentenced to probation also recorded noted significant reductions, with a drop of nearly 8% in reoffending rates recorded between 2008 and 2012.  The report shows that those sentenced to a community service order were less likely to reoffend than those sentenced to a probation order.  

I also particularly welcome the finding that community service continues to show very good outcomes. More than 350,000 hours of community service work were carried out around the country in 2018. This benefits communities nationwide and allows offenders a chance to make amends for their criminal actions in a tangible way. Moreover, the findings of the CSO's work clearly show that such orders can also help reduce reoffending rates among the individuals involved. While there is clearly scope for further improvement, this evidence is very positive overall. It means that more ex-offenders are turning their lives around and fewer are going on to reoffend, with all the negative consequences that brings for our communities.

I expect that future studies in this CSO series are likely to show a continuation of the downward trend.  Since 2015 a range of enhanced prisoner programmes aimed at reducing reoffending behaviour have been introduced by the Irish Prison Service and the Probation Service.  These include targeting offenders with high recidivism rates, in particular through the joint agency response to crime, JARC. I wish to acknowledge the work of the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, in that regard. This initiative ensures a multi-agency approach to prolific offenders which prioritises them for targeted interventions in order to reduce crime and victimisation in local communities.  Independent evaluations have found that the JARC pilots are helping to reduce both the frequency and severity of reoffending among their clients groups.

I thank the Minister for his answer. I would not be as positive as he is in my assessment of what is contained in the CSO report. It is important to look at the statistics that were revealed last week. They show that of the prisoners released in 2011, approximately 49% were convicted of another offence within three years. They also showed that 46% of the prisoners released in 2012 were convicted of another crime within three years. The Minister notes that this shows a reduction when compared to the statistics that were released previously, but it is still a very high level of repeat offending.

Looking at particular offences which very much affect communities throughout the country, we can see that the rate of repeat offending is still alarmingly high. We note that of those convicted of robbery and burglary offences who were released in 2011, 69% were convicted of another crime within three years of release. We note in respect of those convicted of robbery and burglary and released in 2012 that 72% were convicted of another crime within three years of release. There is a very significant problem in respect of robbery and burglary, with individuals who are released from prison committing offences again. It is noteworthy that in the area of sexual offences the level of recidivism is not as high as in other offences. The rates there are only 23% and 21%. That is still a significant amount and it still merits attention from the Government.

I would like to know what the Government intends to do about the ongoing levels of repeat offending.

I know it is not an easy task but what are we going to do to try to deter these young men who find themselves imprisoned in their late teens or early 20s? What can we do to get them off the path of criminality at that stage rather than seeing them back in prison again shortly afterwards?

There are many positive aspects to the report. I am not surprised, nor would I expect anything from Deputy O'Callaghan other than that he would concentrate on the negative aspects. I accept what he says in so far as the report clearly identifies that reoffending is highest among those originally sentenced in respect of robbery and burglary. Rates of recidivism within three years was 72.3% for the 2012 cohort and 68.9% for the 2011 cohort of those convicted of robbery. The corresponding figures for those convicted of burglary were 69.4% and 71.5%. These figures are very concerning.

In the period since then, the Government has taken a range of steps to address the issue, including reforming the law with the Criminal Justice (Burglary of Dwellings) Act 2015 and the denial of bail to repeat offenders. More generally, I point to the scale of Garda activity to tackle burglary and property related crime and to the significant results that flow therefrom. Up to May 2019, Garda action on burglary and property related crime led to 10,000 arrests and more than 11,500 criminal charges, including in the area of burglary, handling stolen property and possession of firearms. I expect these and other steps will lead to further improvement in these statistics.

We need to do more in respect of robbery and burglary in particular to try to deter repeat offenders. In this regard, will the Minister reflect on the proposals put forward by Fianna Fáil in our Bail (Amendment) Bill 2017? In terms of the broader picture, all of us in the House need to recognise that if a young boy is incarcerated in a juvenile detention centre before he is 18 the likelihood is that when he becomes a man he will be incarcerated in a prison for committing criminal offences. We need to target boys and young men to try to deter them from a life and path of criminality. Unfortunately, it is the case that many of these young men come from disadvantaged communities and chaotic family backgrounds with parental addiction. They also get involved in the drugs business at a young age, in terms of distributing and following orders from serious gangland criminals in drug gangs. We need to start a campaign of education and information for young people to make them aware of the downside of being involved in a life of crime. We need to make them aware there are far more opportunities available for them, and that there should be opportunities available for them other than that life and the path of crime.

There are a number of programmes and I acknowledge the work of my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, who is sitting beside me. He is working actively on a new youth justice strategy. I want to mention the success of the community return programme and the community support programme. In particular, in respect of youth crime, I acknowledge the importance of the Garda youth diversion programme. This is a statutory programme, amended in 2006, that focuses on the prevention of criminal behaviour as well as diversion from the criminal justice system and the rehabilitation of children between the ages of ten and 18. I acknowledge the work of the Garda Síochána in this regard.

I assure the House that we are seeing a series of positive results and a very positive impact on diverting many young people and children who commit offences and moving them towards a greater level or more positive area of life choices. In 2017, 77% of children in the programme were referred with regard to one incident. I acknowledge the expert steering group, which is developing a new youth justice strategy, including a review of the Children Act. I look forward to continuing to inform the House, along with Deputy Stanton, as we proceed with this most important aspect of the criminal justice programme.