Parole Bill 2016: Second Stage

Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I welcome Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, to the House.

I thank the Acting Chairman. I am pleased to address the House today on behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality. I want to acknowledge Deputy Jim O’Callaghan’s role in originally drafting this Private Members’ Bill. Although it has been extensively amended by Government after a massive work programme in the Department of Justice and Equality, its core substance remains the same.

This is important legislation that will put parole decisions on a sound legislative footing and ensure they are made by an expert and impartial body. This Bill received cross-party support in the Dáil and it is clear there is a very genuine commitment in both Houses to progressing this Bill and ensuring its reforms can take place as soon as possible.

While the law sets down very heavy penalties for the most serious crimes, we recognise that prisoners should not be detained indefinitely without any prospect of ever being released. Prisoners, and perhaps most of all those who have committed the most awful of offences, need to have an incentive to rehabilitate themselves. It is very much in the public interest that this incentive to rehabilitate exists. That is why a system of parole, together with other forms of early release, is common across the world. While we might recoil at the idea that a prisoner who has taken a person’s life by an irreversible and abhorrent action should be allowed to return to the community when their victim can never do so, we should remember, of course, that a life sentence does mean life. A parolee remains subject to the parole order for the rest of his or her life and can be recalled to prison at any time if he or she breaches a condition of parole. His or her sentence remains in place for the rest of his or her lifetime. It is very clear that parole should be considered very carefully, and only permitted when a reasonable amount of the sentence, taking account of all the circumstances, has been served.

In Ireland at present, parole is legally granted as a form of reviewable temporary release under the Criminal Justice Act 1960. The current Parole Board comprises members with extensive expertise in a range of relevant areas, including criminal law, probation, psychotherapy, criminology and policing. It operates on an administrative basis and makes recommendations on the granting of parole and the sentence management of those serving long sentences. The final decision on whether to release a prisoner is made by the Minister for Justice and Equality.

It has been a long standing objective of successive Governments to place the Parole Board on a statutory footing. When the current board was established in 2001, it was envisaged that the non-statutory board would operate for a number of years, with a view to the board gaining experience prior to being placed on a statutory footing. The penal policy review group produced a report in 2014 recommending establishing the Parole Board on an independent statutory basis. The Law Reform Commission agrees with this proposal and the former Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality, under my own chairmanship at the time, in its report of March 2013, made the same recommendation.

The current Parole Board has done excellent work for very many years, which I would like to acknowledge and thank it for. The reason it is so important that it is placed in legislation is that there is clarity and legal certainty for the prisoner, the victim and the general public about how the board reaches its decisions. The other reform in this Bill is that decisions will be made independently of the Minister. This ensures that decisions on parole cannot be influenced by political considerations but rather can only be made on the basis of criteria which are set out in statute.

Senators will be aware of the growing appreciation of the needs and the interests of victims in the criminal justice system. The Criminal Justice (Victims of Crime) Act 2017 laid down the rights of victims to be given information during the investigation and trial processes and beyond. The Bill before us will complement other measures by enhancing the role of the victim in the parole process, including by allowing him or her to have legal representation. The Government is pleased to support the Bill.

On Report Stage in Dáil Éireann, the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, moved a very large volume of amendments that had been prepared by the Department and the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel and that have, in my view, ensured that the original policy intention is respected, while also ensuring the Bill is robust and legally sound. The Minister pleased to see the extent to which the Bill and those amendments received the broad support of that House.

Part 1 of the Bill contains the usual provisions on interpretation. Part 2 deals with the membership of the board, its functions and powers. While the members of the board are technically to be appointed by the Minister, the majority will be nominated by State bodies and professional organisations. This is to ensure that the board has the necessary range and depth of expertise to properly make decisions on parole. The board will have experts in law, psychology and psychiatry. There will also be a member from the Irish Prison Service, the Garda Síochána and a probation officer, who will bring their experience working on the front line of the criminal justice system to the board’s decisions. Another member will be from an NGO working in the area of prisoners' rights or prison reform. The remaining members will be chosen on the basis of their expertise and experience.

The board will have the power to obtain reports about the prisoner. For example, it can direct the Irish Prison Service to provide a report on the prisoner’s behaviour in prison and his or her engagement with treatment and education programmes. It can obtain psychological reports on the prisoner. The board can meet with the prisoner, interview him or her and give him or her an opportunity to put forward the case for being granted parole. This meeting or interview can be conducted by two or more members of the board and can take place at the prison. All this will help inform the board’s decision.

The victim will be entitled to make an oral submission to the board if he or she wishes. Currently, the victim is invited to write to the board, and the board takes these submissions very seriously. However, some victims would prefer an opportunity to address the board personally, and the Bill provides for that. Legal representation and legal aid will be provided for both the parole applicant and the victim in the parole process.

The board will make decisions which have a significant impact on a prisoner’s liberty and we know that many prisoners have limited capacity to articulate their case. The victim will be entitled to legal representation and legal aid. This is to help ensure that balance is maintained between the need and entitlement for victims to be heard and respected, and the rights of life-sentence prisoners seeking parole.

The board can make its own procedures, subject to some stipulations. In particular, there is a requirement for these procedures to be fair, and there are certain matters in which the board must make procedures. The board can determine procedural detail such as timeframes and the manner in which notifications are to be made. This allows for a degree of flexibility and practicality.

There are limits on the board’s discretion. It will, for example, have to allow for legal representation. It will have to notify the victim of consideration of an application for parole and give the victim an explanation of how he or she can participate in the process. It will also have to provide the parole applicant with the information it will be considering in coming to its decision.

The chief executive will manage and control the board’s staff, administration and business. The chief executive will prepare accounts for audit by the Comptroller and Auditor General and will be accountable to the Committee of Public Accounts and other Oireachtas committees.

Part 3 of the Bill deals with the parole process. The Bill increases the time which must be served by a life-sentence prisoner before being considered for parole to 12 years, compared to the existing seven years. While those life-sentence prisoners who are now being granted parole have, on average, served more than 18 years of their life sentence, the Minister recognises that an initial parole hearing after seven years can cause distress to victims. This increase is something that I hope will go some way toward limiting the distress victims have said they experience currently when they are notified seven years into a prisoner’s sentence that he or she is to be considered for parole, and the upset when this process is repeated a number of times.

Eligibility will be limited initially to those serving life sentences, although the Minister can extend it to other prisoners serving long sentences eventually by regulation. This section also states that prisoners who are serving mandatory minimum sentences are not eligible until the minimum period has been served and sets out how eligibility is to be decided when a prisoner is serving concurrent or consecutive sentences.

The Irish Prison Service will notify the board of who is eligible for parole and the board will notify the prisoner. The prisoner will be asked to confirm that he or she wishes to apply for parole.

Parole can be granted by the making of a parole order if three criteria are met. First, the applicant must not present an undue risk to the safety and security of the public, including the victim. Second, the applicant must be rehabilitated and capable of reintegrating into society. Third, the board must decide that it is appropriate in all the circumstances to grant parole. This third limb of the test is similar to a provision in temporary release legislation and the Minister believes it is important that it is also included here. The factors that the board will consider in deciding whether the test is met are set out clearly in the Bill.

A parole order will specify a release date, which may be up to 18 months in the future. Often, prisoners who have been detained for many years may find it difficult to adjust if they are released immediately. This time can be used to prepare the prisoner for eventual release, for example, by transfer to an open prison. A parole order will be subject to conditions that the board considers appropriate, for example, that the parolee does not communicate with the victim, visit a particular locality or commit an offence while on parole.

When refusing parole, the Parole Board can recommend measures that could further the prisoner's rehabilitation or capacity to reintegrate into society or that might mitigate any risk the prisoner might pose to the public. For example, it can recommend that the prisoner should undergo a therapeutic programme or educational course or undergo short periods of temporary release. This is an important aspect of the current work of the board, particularly when it is reviewing prisoners at the early stages of sentences that will continue under the new board. The board can revoke or vary an order where the parolee poses an undue risk to the safety and security of the public or where he or she has breached a condition attaching to the order. Breach of a parole order renders a person unlawfully at large. This is similar to breach of a condition of temporary release and the person can be arrested and returned to detention with the parole order suspended until the board can consider whether it should be revoked or varied.

Part 4 makes consequential amendments to other legislation. Most of these are technical in nature but I wish to draw the attention of Senators to section 41. The latter amends the Criminal Justice (Victims of Crime) Act 2017 to provide that the victim should be informed, if he or she has requested it, of any application for parole or the release of the person on parole.

I appeal to Senators to support the Bill. I look forward to hearing their views and to the debate. I look forward to real progress on these important reforms to our parole system.

I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive opening statement. I call Senator Clifford Lee. The Senator has eight minutes but I understand that she is sharing time with Senator Murnane O'Connor.

We will take five and three minutes, respectively. I thank the Minister of State for the comprehensive overview of the Bill. I wish to acknowledge the work done by my colleague, Deputy Jim O'Callaghan, in getting the Bill to this House. It is an important milestone for the criminal justice system in Ireland to have it here. I hope the Bill will pass through the Houses and be enacted.

The Bill confers responsibility for granting parole onto an independent statutory body. Currently, the de facto parole system operates entirely at the discretion of the Minister for Justice and Equality, with a non-statutory parole board advising him. This is completely unsatisfactory and not fit for purpose in a modern criminal justice system. Any body that performs a function that is important in deciding whether to release convicted murderers and rapists should be clearly defined in legislation and its functions organised in statute. The current situation is incoherent in having a member of Cabinet and the Oireachtas making decisions in respect of matters initially decided upon by the Judiciary. It offends the principle of the separation of powers, which should keep politicians away from those functions of the court. The ad hoc basis upon which parole is currently granted in Ireland and the ultimate control of this system by a politician are outdated. It is important that these two functions are separated.

I am happy that the Bill is before the Houses and that the Government is supporting it. The Bill gives significant rights and support to victims of crime. This is an important aspect for many Senators because it creates an obligation on the board to provide information that is readily accessible to victims, as well as the general public and offenders, about matters relating to release from detention on parole, policies and the operation of the board in general. This is important for transparency and public faith in the criminal justice system.

The board will be obliged to take into consideration all relevant available information from the trial or sentencing process and information obtained from victims. There is also an obligation to take due consideration of the position of any victims affected by a decision and any impact statement victims might make or submissions that might be made by them or on their behalf. Again, this is significant because currently the parole system we have does not necessarily take this into account. It is important that we put victims of crime and their families at the front and centre of the process.

There has been a long-standing commitment to place the Parole Board on a statutory footing. A commitment was first affirmed by the then Minister of Justice and Equality, Alan Shatter, in 2011. This was repeated by him in 2013 at the inaugural Parole Board conference. Placing the board on a statutory footing will create greater transparency and clarity, features always welcome in the criminal justice system. The Parole Board will make the final decision regarding parole rather than simply recommending that decision. The Minister then will have the final say on whether it is made. That is really important.

The make-up of the Parole Board, between the members and the staff, should be reconsidered. They cannot be merely political appointees with political connections. I say that with due respect to the current members. They work hard but what we are about is instilling public satisfaction and confidence in the Parole Board. That is something I hope the Minister of State will take into consideration. It is important that the Bill gets the full support of the House.

I applaud my colleague, Deputy O'Callaghan, for bringing forward this legislation. The Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, has been tireless in his work to help it progress. It is one of the most important tranches of legislation to come before these Houses and I appreciate being able to speak on it. Considerable work has gone into the Bill. It is important that we acknowledge the pain and hurt that has brought so many people from all sides together to send in submissions. I have spent a good deal of time with family friends of mine for whom the Bill is in a sense the justice they deserve. I have also heard from families of the perpetrators of crimes. They too need certainty to move on with their lives in the aftermath of these cases. These are serious crimes and we need to have serious punishment for them, but we need to be clear in that regard. For far too long we have struggled under the weight of the current parole system, which is in major need of reform. The parole system in Ireland has never been fair. It has never been transparent or something that gives everyone the sense of justice.

There is a strong sense of collaboration in the Bill and that is to be welcomed because we must always seek to work together for the greater good. I want us to work hard to have this Bill enacted before the recess. It is vital, urgent and needs to be dealt with.

The Parole Board should, as set out in the Bill, be independent and established on a statutory basis in order to ensure that release decisions taken are set out in legislation and not subject to discretion. It should be made up of those who have walked the halls in the context of these kinds of crimes, those who have seen all sides and can make effective decisions. In seeking to achieve this aim, a person serving a life sentence should not be eligible to apply for the parole process until he or she has served a minimum period of 12 years. We are seeking a punishment to fit the crime. We are saying clearly that there is no easy way out. We are also balancing the prisoner's rights in the clarification and notification of the same. Once the Bill is enacted, it should apply to anyone who makes an application for parole after enactment. That should apply irrespective of when the crime was committed. This detail is important to know. We may need to look at the timescale of the review process. I welcome the inclusion of specifying periods within which anything is required to be done, including the period within which the board shall make a determination on an application for parole. I welcome that the victims can access the information regarding parole applications. They are living with the consequences and should be informed. In reality, the average time spent in prison in the most serious cases was 18 years. For a prisoner to believe that he or she might be eligible after seven years is adding to drama on all sides. It is right that over half the sentence would elapse before the process of seeking parole would begin.

The Bill also seeks to ensure that when imposing sentence upon a person a judge may impose a specified period during which the person should not be eligible for parole. These measures offer certainty where there has not been certainty before. It is important to emphasise that the Bill lays out with certainty that release on parole does not and will not conclude the sentence of the parolee. The possibility of revoking parole is welcome. For far too long we have heard of repeat offenders reappearing in court on further charges. The associated crimes and most serious offences should be handled with this in mind.

The court system has proven incredibly tough for the families of victims to navigate.

I would like to see their rights strengthened. Allowing victims' families to be heard at parole hearings goes a long way to allowing them to have a voice and allowing families a choice under the nomination of family members section where a family member may have passed away but someone can still speak up for the victim. It gives strength and voice to the families and it is good to have a statutory framework for it. The definition of justice is fairness in protection of rights and punishment of wrongs.

Although there were previous permissions to have any victim put his or her submissions in writing, I believe that while they have been taken seriously, those submissions were silent. To silence the families was to deny them justice. I am heartened to see the provision of oral submissions from any victim, including in this Bill. Victims of crimes are to be involved and legal representation for families affected will be made available. This creates a balance. Murder victims' families have endured life sentences and will serve them forever. There will always be a sense that someone important is missing from their lives. We cannot change that but we can minimise the drama by strengthening what we can do for them. There is a long road to go in how we treat them in the future and they need company. This is a vital Bill which society needs and deserves. I hope we can all support it to see its swift passage into law and to listen to all these voices to allow sufficient weight to be placed where it may not have been before.

Debate adjourned.