Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Tuesday, 22 Oct 1991

Vol. 411 No. 4

Ceisteanna — Questions. Oral Answers. - Alternatives to Custody.

Seán Barrett


16 Mr. S. Barrett asked the Minister for Justice if he will outline his plans to introduce additional schemes as alternatives to custody; if his attention has been drawn to the fact that the present prison policy is a cause of great concern; whether there are 7,000 prisoners going through 2,000 prison places annually; and if he will make a statement on the matter.

A prison system which successfully contains in custody some 2,200 prisoners at any one time, and copes with an annual throughput of 7,400 prisoners, cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be described as a failure. It is an insult to the dedication, professionalism and commitment of prison management and staff, and all the specialist services working in the prisons, to suggest that it is.

The prison system plays a vital role in protecting the community against the depredations of certain criminal elements in our society. I have long since acknowledged however, that the long term public interest is best served when prisons are used only as a last resort and when a range of effective alternatives are employed. The Deputy must be aware that there are already many alternatives to custody which are being extensively used and that the search for even more is ongoing.

Alternatives to custody and non custodial measures come in two broad categories, unsupervised and supervised. The unsupervised category includes fines, compensation and suspended sentences. The supervised category includes probation orders, community service orders and deferment of sentence. At the present time there are over 3,200 offenders serving community based sanctions under the supervision of the probation and welfare service. That is about one-and-a-half times the number of persons who are in prison. Of these about 750 are on community service orders. These figures compare with a total of about 2,250 on supervised alternatives to custody around the time the Whitaker Committee reported of whom about 250 would have been on community service orders. I mention that comparison because sometimes one would get the impression from comments that are made publicly that little or nothing has been done about the Whitaker Committee's recommendation that increased use should be made of alternatives to custody. That is manifestly not the case, as is clear from the figures I have just cited. That is not to say that there is no scope for further use of alternatives to custody.

I have already announced a scheme for intensive supervision in the community. It involves the expansion of the probation and welfare service by 31 extra staff to provide special supervision for about 200 additional offenders. Already four senior probation and welfare officers and seven welfare officers have been appointed. The recruitment of the balance is well underway. Two centres will be provided for this scheme in Dublin and Cork at which offenders on supervision orders from the courts or on supervised temporary release from custody will be required to attend as an integral part of their supervision programme. Selection for special supervision will be made taking account of such factors as the nature of the offence, previous convictions and periods in custody, patterns of offending behaviour, social background and home circumstances. Selection at the sentencing stage will be made from those found guilty of criminal offences on the basis of a comprehensive pre-sentence report by the probation and welfare service, while those already in custody will be selected through the normal screening processes operated in prisons and places of detentions and will then be permitted temporary release under the Criminal Justice Act, 1960.

I am also at present examining whether there is any further scope, through more positive sentence management, to allow more offenders in custody to serve a greater portion of their sentences in the community under supervision.

I did not criticise those administering the prison service, I referred to present prison policy which is the responsibility of the Minister. Will the Minister agree that part and parcel of our major problem is the fact that the courts are operating totally outdated laws and that there is an urgent need to set up a criminal law reform commission to update our laws? Will he also agree that the taxpayers are being asked to spend £75 million annually on a prison service which is seen in the eyes of most reasonable people to be a total and absolute failure because — I am sure the Minister will correct me if I am wrong — a considerable percentage of those who go to prison reoffend when they come out and find themselves back in prison? I am concentrating here on the question of policy. Will the Minister agree that the present policy is failing? It is obvious from the crime figures produced recently that crime continues to pay; £36 million worth of goods was stolen in 1990 and only £3 million worth of goods was recovered. Laws which put people into prison but which allow them to reap the rewards of their efforts before they are sentenced are deemed to failure. Will the Minister agree that we will not get anywhere in this area until we update our criminal law?

I share the Deputy's concern that somebody who has served time in prison can come out and reap the benefits of his crime. With that in mind and in a major effort to update the law in this area the Law Reform Commission prepared a report which the Government have accepted. In that regard I hope to introduce legislation before the end of this session for the confiscation of the assets of those involved in crime which will be major step forward in the wide arena of society's fight against the criminal.