I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am pleased to introduce the Bill to the House. Members will be aware that parole has operated in the criminal justice system for many years. It applies to offenders convicted of serious offences on whom longer sentences, including life sentences, have been imposed. The system currently operates entirely at the discretion of the Minister for Justice and Equality. In making the decision to grant or refuse parole, the Minister receives advice from the Parole Board, which is a non-statutory body. The system of parole is very unsatisfactory because it is not based in statute and is ultimately controlled by a politician. In saying this, I mean no disrespect to politicians. However, it is inappropriate that a politician should have the ultimate say as to whether a prisoner should be granted parole.
Prisoners who seek parole and citizens are entitled to know what is the basis on which parole is being granted to a prisoner. It is important to have in place an independent, transparent and statutory-based scheme that sets out how and when a person is granted parole, rather than leaving this decision to the discretion of a politician who may be swayed by factors outside of what is necessary for the good of society and the rehabilitation of the prisoner.
The Bill has four objectives. I will outline briefly what these objectives are before discussing some of the provisions of the Bill. The first objective is to establish an independent parole board on a statutory basis. While many Governments have made commitments to establishing an independent and a statutory-based Parole Board, it has not yet been done. The second objective is to give this independent statutory board responsibility for the decision to grant parole, thereby removing this responsibility from the Minister for Justice and Equality. The third objective is to establish, on a statutory basis, clear criteria for the granting of parole in order that citizens, victims of crime and prisoners know the basis on which applications may be made for parole and the basis on which it can be granted. The fourth objective is to give victims of crime a say in the process whereby they can be heard in respect of an application for parole by the person responsible for committing a criminal act against him or her or a member of his or her family who died as a result of a criminal act.
The statutory scheme I propose does not change in substance the current eligibility for parole. What I have sought to do is replicate the system that informally operates at present and place it on a formal, statutory basis. While I am aware that some people may be concerned that individuals may apply for parole after eight years, in most years, they will not be granted parole, particularly in cases involving life sentences. As the Minister will be aware, in most cases, there is a rule that parole is not granted in cases of life sentences until a term of 15 years has been served. However, the eligibility criteria simply replicate the current system in place and the way in which it is operated by the Parole Board. This issue can be discussed in greater detail in committee, at which point more specific requirements may be set down in respect of eligibility. The Bill does not propose to replace the current temporary release provisions but places the concept of parole on a statutory basis.
I now propose to briefly discuss the general provisions of the Bill. As I did not have the resources of the Department of Justice and Equality at my disposal, I am conscious that there may be improvements that could be easily made to the Bill and I will be pleased to accept any such amendments that improve the Bill if and when it reaches Committee Stage. I have no doubt Members may have helpful amendments.
I am pleased the Bill has received general support from the Irish Penal Reform Trust and Parole Board. Before discussing its provisions, I acknowledge the assistance I received in respect of the Bill from Niall Buckley, barrister-at-law, who provided me with help in drafting it. I will now refer to the mechanism of the Bill and the Parts into which it is divided. The Bill is divided into three Parts, the first of which deals with preliminary and general matters. The second Part deals with the Parole Board, its powers and composition, and the third Part deals with parole applications and how they should be appraised and determined by the Parole Board.
The first Part contains the standard provisions that appear in most legislation, including its Short Title and commencement. Since it is not a Government Bill, I have inserted a specific commencement date, although I recognise that commencement of Acts is governed by commencement orders signed by the Minister. In this case, it is important to try to keep to a timeline for having the legislation introduced. Section 5 sets out the nature of the parole process.
The second Part deals with the Parole Board. The functions of the board, which will be established pursuant to section 6, are set out in section 7 and its objective is to convene panels to consider persons for parole and direct, if appropriate, that such persons be released on parole, subject to such conditions as may be set out by the parole order. The panels must require that persons released on parole be subject to periodic monitoring of compliance with parole conditions. They must also consider whether conditions need to be set. Obviously, some individuals will breach the terms of their parole conditions. For this reason, it is necessary that the Parole Board will have power to issue warrants for the purpose of apprehending and returning to custody persons who breach parole conditions.
Section 8 deals with the membership of the Parole Board. It is proposed that the board will have 15 members. The board must have, as its primary objective, the insurance that individuals and society remain safe when individuals are released. However, we cannot ignore the other objective of imprisonment, namely, rehabilitation. For this reason, the 15 members should include a psychiatrist, psychologist, representative of the Irish Prison Service, Garda representative, probation or welfare officer, nominee of the Irish Penal Reform Trust and a number of other individuals who the Minister will appoint. It should be recognised, however, that the persons to be appointed must have knowledge or understanding of the criminal justice system and have the ability to make a balanced and reasonable assessment of risk.
The term of office of individual members should be for four years and they may be appointed for two terms. The chairperson should be a retired judge of the Circuit Court or higher, as proposed in section 10. There should also be individuals known as panel conveners because decisions in respect of parole must be made by groups within the Parole Board.
The panels we are setting out would contain four board members and determine whether individuals would be granted parole.
Section 12 deals with staffing. Obviously, there are issues. The last thing I want to do is create a giant quango that would produce glossy reports on an annual basis with public relations advisers and solicitors firms. What I have sought to do is simply replicate the system in place. There would need to be staff, but they could either be seconded by the Minister or, alternatively, hired by individuals.
Section 13 deals with the parole panels, while section 14 deals with their powers. Their ultimate power would lie in determining whether individuals should be considered for parole. The Bill sets out a series of factors that would need to be considered in determining whether parole should be granted. Among the main factors are the conduct of the parole candidate to date and the risk of reoffending. Another power of the parole panels would be to receive submissions from any victim of the person whose parole was being considered.
Sections 15 and 16 propose two mechanisms in the consideration of parole by a panel. It could undertake a review. It would be a documentary review because in many cases we might not need an oral hearing. The Parole Board could determine whether parole should be granted based on the documentary evidence. It would also have the ability to conduct an interview under this function. Section 16 deals with a situation where parole has been refused. An individual might wish to appeal such a decision or someone else might wish to have a matter heard. This would take the form of an oral hearing on whether parole should be granted. It would not be turned into a lengthy judicial-type process. We hope to have an informal process in place for the hearings.
Part 3 of the Bill deals with the parole process and sets out the guiding principles. The main principle in every case is the safety of the community. Section 19 deals with the criteria for granting parole which are set out in considerable detail. Some of the factors to be considered include the nature and gravity of the offence, the term of imprisonment and what the trial judge said at the time.
Section 20 deals with eligibility. Section 21 deals with consideration for parole, while section 22 deals with the parole order. A specific order must be made by the statutory body. This could be monitored under the monitoring and compliance provisions set out in section 23. The order could be varied under section 24 and revoked under section 25 if someone was to breach the terms of parole.
Sections 26 and 27 deal with the preparation for hearings. There is a small amendment to the Defamation Act to protect members of the Parole Board from any claim for defamation arising from the publication of reports.
That is a brief outline of the provisions contained in the Bill. I will now hand over to Deputy James Browne.