——because the information was not available. He had to refer to the Irish Prison Service which checked records and warrants from the courts and hoped to present a clear picture in due course. My approach is that such information should be available regularly and at the touch of a button and it will be available if the kind of information I want to establish through the database and the register is accepted and put in place.
We are facing a legally anomalous situation now where one serious sexual offender has been released into society and where another six could be released free to re-offend. I understand that count has changed and it is now two. It is essential that we have a central record of sentences and that such information be easily accessible by the Government and the public.
The Fine Gael Bill will create a comprehensive register of sentences that will detail every sentence handed down for any crime committed in Ireland. The database will be invaluable to legal professionals, the Judiciary, who will want to refer to it from the point of view of maintaining consistency in sentencing, something to which I will return, legal researchers, policy makers, academics and legislators in this and the other House. It will also provide the public with a snapshot view of sentencing practices in the courts. That information is available if it can be collated by people in the Civil Service but it is not available generally.
Such a database would include the case number, the offence and its particulars, mitigating factors relied on by the defence, previous convictions, sentencing details including probation Act applications and time already served. There is no need for the names to be included. This is not an effort to load continuing opprobrium on somebody who has served or is in the process of serving a sentence. This can be done without including the names of the persons on the register. The intention is to bring transparency to the process and not to single out individuals. It is on that basis I propose that the Bill be read a Second Time.
On the background to the Bill, at the Fine Gael Ard-Fheis we launched a number of policies in the justice sphere on issues such as bail, home defence and sentencing. The approach is to address the legitimate fears people have regarding the criminal justice system and its ability to protect them in their homes, estates and communities. The Bill I propose is one of several which will introduce sensible and much-needed legislation that will improve the effectiveness, accountability and transparency of our criminal justice system.
Of all the complaints I get about sentencing, the issue of perceived inconsistency is probably the greatest. Fine Gael wants a new approach to sentencing. I emphasise that this approach will respect judicial discretion but it will involve the Members of the Legislature accepting their duty and responsibility to establish and prescribe parameters within which sentences should apply to serious crimes. I am talking about consistency, coherence and appropriate sentences for serious crime.
From that point of view a database and a register of sentences is essential because we cannot build on any platform even to try to establish tariffs for crimes without such a register. I will come to that aspect shortly. Through the mechanism of such a register, sentencing norms can be assessed and trends in sentencing easily identified. I put much emphasis on the issue of greater transparency through the sentencing process within which the criminal justice system should operate. I also put much emphasis on access for all people. Why should the public not have access? They can read about individual decisions in the local and national newspapers but this gives them a microscopic view of the sentencing process. There is no reason they should not have an overall view of the kind of sentences that apply to certain cases.
The Bill I present is important from that point of view. It is reasonable and straightforward and I urge the Government to accept it. It represents a simple change in procedures that will have a positive effect and there is no reason its implementation should be delayed. That is provided for in section 3. Since I will ask the Courts Service to maintain the register, there will be little time to prepare but there should be no continuing delay in the implementation of the register.
The Bill states:
This Act shall come into force on such day as the Minister shall by order appoint, but shall come into force within one year of its passing into law.
The reference is to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, whoever he or she may be.
It should not be left on the shelf. Responsibility for maintenance of the register will lie with the Courts Service, which will be obliged to update the register on at least a weekly basis when the courts are sitting. This information is already gathered by the Courts Service and will not involve any significant additional onus on its part. It will simply involve the orderly organisation of the data into one digestible resource.
The register will remain subject to the provisions of the Freedom of Information Acts, but my essential approach is that the register should be a public document as far as possible, so everybody can have easy access to it. Ultimately I would hope to see it available on-line.
In many ways, the register and the information contained on it is already in the public domain, which is right. Under Bunreacht na hÉireann, specifically Article 34.1, it is required that justice be dispensed in public. Although there are clearly some exceptions, sentences are almost always a matter of public record. I emphasise that there is no need for the names of the individuals to be included in the register. The object of the exercise is to bring transparency to the process rather than single out individuals for scrutiny and further public opprobrium.
I propose that the register include the following information in respect of each sentence passed for crimes in Ireland: the case number, proceeding to the offence; the particulars of the offence; any mitigating factors; previous convictions; details of the sentence, including sentences where the Probation Act was applied or no custodial sentence was given; details of the sentences with regard to whether they were consecutive or concurrent; if there were non-custodial elements; if time had already been served and its length; and if early release was granted or if there was any remission of the sentence. This is laid down in the Bill.
The rationale is clear and unambiguous. We must ensure consistency of sentencing. To achieve this we must first understand where the sentencing process is being inconsistent. Anecdotal evidence is not a sufficient basis for any kind of substantial reform, and we cannot expect this House or any legislature to base decisions on the strengths of reports from constituents or correspondence as to what appeared to be enormous discrepancies, however numerous or seemingly common they are. I accept that each case is different, but sometimes the inconsistencies are so enormous that they arouse a reaction among the public. Justice is not being served in that case. Judges will be able to access the register and ensure that such inconsistencies do not arise.
The Bill is self-explanatory. The information should be available to everybody at the touch of a button. Cases such as that which occurred last week would not occur again. In that case, nobody — including the Taoiseach — knew how many people could be released into society arising from a particular court decision, free to offend again. Nobody even knew how many challenges to expect.
This Bill is a base on which I hope to introduce a number of other changes in the sentencing process. I want to see a system of sentencing tariffs introduced. A range should be laid down through this House for serious crime. That is our responsibility. Although I respect judicial discretion, this House also has a responsibility to establish what a crime is in law, and establish in broad terms the type of tariff which would apply if somebody is convicted of a crime.
Judicial discretion will be retained, as it will be a matter for the judge to adopt two courses of action. The judge, on conviction, will apply a sentence within that tariff, depending on the circumstances of a particular case. In exceptional circumstances, the judge will be able to apply a sentence which may be outside the tariff. What I want this House to agree to is that in due course if the judge does this, he or she will explain in open court the reasons for going outside the tariff. That is the minimum the public is entitled to expect.
There are other major issues in the sentencing area which need to be touched upon. We should consider the matter of consecutive and concurrent sentences. In general, we should not have concurrent sentences unless the offences before the court are related to a particular issue or if there is a relationship between the offences. If they are separate offences they must be dealt with separately. It is a matter for the Legislature to establish this.
A further area relating to sentencing which needs to be looked at is the current automatic remission of sentences. A person leaving the Central Criminal Court having received a four-year sentence will arrive in Mountjoy or Portlaoise with his sentence down to three years. That is not the correct way to do business and it is a matter for the Oireachtas to change it. Although I am not against remission, it should be earned.
I accept entirely that remission is a tool that should be used in prisons. The issue of good behaviour arises. I have been made aware of various rehabilitative courses provided for prisoners in prisons, but prisoners do not bother to attend them because there is no incentive to do so. I would have a scenario where remission of sentences would be dependent on prisoners availing of whatever rehabilitative measures were provided in prisons. It all depends on the broad approach to a change in the philosophy of sentencing. This change would involve, in that instance, the requirement that the prisoner co-operate fully with prison authorities, be on good behaviour and, importantly, be prepared to adopt the rehabilitative measures provided for him or her in prison.
We have lost sight of the whole process of rehabilitation. We can just accept the position that prisons are universities of crime, throwing up our hands and locking prisoners up for a certain period before giving them remission so they can come out to commit more crimes. That fight has been given up, and I would like to restore an approach where a significant honest effort would be made so at least some people — young offenders in particular — would be rehabilitated. If this is to be done it will have to operate on a carrot and stick basis. The carrot would be the offer of various rehabilitative courses, educational and otherwise, and the stick would be that a prisoner does not get remission unless an honest effort is made to participate in such courses.
This new approach relating to sentencing is predicated on us knowing, on a general basis, the overall position on the matter. As of now, nobody seems to know, not least the Taoiseach in the Dáil last week, when the crisis on the Supreme Court decision erupted. That is an outrage in a modern society. We demanded action and the Taoiseach was telling us there was no problem, and that nobody was going to walk free. He had no clue and did not know. He should have been able to come into the House armed with information which should have been available from a register system. He could not do so because we have no register. I ask the Government to accept what is a good and necessary idea. It may contain a few technical holes but the Bill has been carefully prepared. It is open to amendment if the Government sees fit but it should be accepted in principle. I do not know if the Government has any ideas left but we certainly have ideas, both as an Opposition and as a future Government, and many are predicated on establishing a register of sentences so I urge the House to accept this Bill.