Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Wednesday, 6 Dec 2006

Vote 22 — Courts Service (Supplementary).

Today's meeting concerns the 2006 Supplementary Estimates for the justice Vote group, as referred by the Dáil. I remind members that these are Supplementary Estimates rather than the totality of the Estimates. This meeting is due to finish as quickly as possible because some members have other business. Is that agreed? Agreed.

I welcome the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and his officials here today to speak on the Supplementary Estimates for his Department covering Vote 19 — Justice, Equality and Law Reform); Vote 20 — Garda Síochána; Vote 21 — prisons; and Vote 22 -Courts Service. A briefing note providing details of the Supplementary Estimates has been circulated to members. The Minister will deliver his speech, after which spokespersons can respond. Each of the subhead groupings will then be dealt with in turn, with an open discussion on the individual headings by way of a question and answer session. This will leave time for concluding comments before the committee adjourns. Is that agreed? Agreed.

The purpose of my meeting with the committee this morning is to seek its approval for a net Supplementary Estimate of €24.5 million for the justice Vote group, representing an increase of 1.15% of the original net allocation for the group.

The requirement for substantive additional funding arises in respect of two of the group's Votes — the Garda Vote, where an additional €15 million is required, and the prisons Vote, where €52 million is being sought. Technical Supplementary Estimates are required on both the Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Courts Service Votes. Combined net savings of €42.5 million on those two Votes and on the Property Registration Authority Vote will be surrendered at year end to offset against the additional funding required.

The additional investment proposed in these Supplementary Estimates should be seen in the context of my wider commitment to ensuring that the justice and equality sector has the necessary resources to deliver on its wide-ranging and complex mandates. As the committee is aware, the overall allocation across the justice group Votes is up 9% in the 2007 Estimates.

The 2007 Estimates build on the considerable investment made in recent years, which has made it possible to increase Garda strength to record levels, to establish a dedicated traffic corps, to provide for successful focused anti-crime operations such as Operation Anvil and to provide the transport, communications and IT support necessary for effective modern policing. In parallel, the accountability structures within which the Garda operate have been transformed and community ownership bolstered in the form of the joint policing committees initiative and the creation of the Garda Reserve.

In the prisons area, the focus of today's Supplementary Estimate is the prisons capital programme and should also be seen against the broader canvas of what has been and is being achieved under this heading. The prisons building allocation for 2007 is up 13% on the 2006 Estimate. Long-standing criticism of our prisons as to their over-crowding, lack of appropriate segregation, as well as inadequate training and other services, are being addressed under this ambitious programme. Clearly, Thornton Hall and the new Munster prison are the headline items in delivery, but today's Supplementary Estimate encompasses a very broad range of projects which are transforming the prisons estate nationally.

While the prisons and Garda Votes are therefore, by far, the items of greatest financial significance within these Supplementary Estimates, for ease of reference this morning, I will address each of the Votes in the traditional sequence in which they appear in the Book of Estimates.

Beginning with the Justice, Equality and Law Reform Vote, approval is sought for a €1,000 technical Supplementary Estimate. While an overall net saving of €39.8 million will be realised by year end, additional provisions are required under a number of headings within the Vote.

Specifically, a provision of €4 million under subhead A5 is required arising from once-off IT costs associated with the creation of a new data centre for the Department. An excess of €0.5 million will also arise under subhead G5 to meet the cost of a contribution to local authorities to cover the retrospective cost of a pay agreement reached between the coroners, my Department and the Departments of Finance and Environment, Heritage and Local Government. Finally, a new subhead has been established within the Vote to meet the requirements of the new Mental Health (Criminal Law) Review Board. As the committee is aware, I established this body on 27 September pursuant to the provisions of the Criminal Law (Insanity) Act 2006.

Savings are, however, anticipated under several subheads under the justice Vote, the largest of which arise under the following subheads: B1 — commissions and special inquiries; D1 — the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service; E10 — child care; G13 — the Garda Ombudsman Commission; and H3 — probation and welfare services to offenders. In many cases, these savings have arisen due to timing issues in respect of projects in preparation or under way but also due to factors such as the level of demand arising under particular grant schemes. In addition, there is a surplus of €4 million in appropriations-in-aid, mainly due to a greater than expected intake of film censorship fees.

Turning next to the Garda Vote, I am seeking the committee's approval for a net Supplementary Estimate of €15 million. On subheads A2, A3, A4, A7, B, H and I, which concern travel and subsistence; incidental expenses; post and telecommunications services; consultancy services; clothing and accessories; transport; witnesses' expenses; and compensation, I am proposing an increase of €15.2 million to cover additional expenditure on these areas.

On subhead A5 — office machinery and other office supplies- I am seeking to increase the provision by €6.3 million arising from costs associated with IT support, additional costs associated with replacement of photocopiers and additional expenditure on consumables associated with new hardware.

On subhead A8 — station services — I am seeking to increase the provision by €5.3 million due to the requirement to purchase additional furniture and increases in utility charges, particularly electricity.

On subhead D — transport — I am seeking to increase the provision by €17 million to enable the Commissioner to make substantial improvements on the age profile of the Garda fleet and also to cover increased running costs, due mainly to the increase in fuel prices throughout 2006. Total spend on the purchase of new vehicles in 2006 will be in the region of €25 million, allowing for the purchase of in excess of 1,200 vehicles, more than half the entire Garda fleet. This expenditure forms part of a major investment programme, which includes an expansion in specific areas which will target organised crime and traffic in particular. Investment in vehicles is obviously an important component of the expansion of the Garda traffic corps, which I am pleased to say, will reach over 1,000 members next year and is on track to reach 1,200 by 2008.

On the savings side of the Garda Vote, I am anticipating that these will amount to €22.8 million. These are made up of the following: €3.5 million on salaries, wages and allowances — roughly 0.4 % of the allocation; €0.5 million on Garda SMI; €0.8 million on the Garda Reserve; €7.5 million on communications and other equipment; €1.5 million on subhead F — aircraft; and €9 million on superannuation. In addition to these savings, there is a surplus of €6 million in appropriations in aid.

Within the context of these savings and the overall management of the Vote, I have been able to authorise the Garda Commissioner to allocate an additional €15.6 million towards overtime, or an additional approximate 500,000 hours of Garda time in 2006. This expenditure was sanctioned by me to enable the Commissioner to continue and expand special operations targeting organised crime and traffic law enforcement.

On the prisons Vote, I am seeking a supplementary provision of €52 million, which is made up of additional expenditure of €81.701 million, offset by savings of €29.701 million elsewhere in the prisons Vote. A provision of approximately €37 million is included to enable the buyout of the loan for the Midlands Prison, which will result in a long-term saving for the State. As members of the committee may recall, the Midlands Prison was completed in 2000 and was built on a client lead design, build and finance basis. The construction project was financed by a 20-year loan. The early repayment of this loan will generate substantial interest savings of approximately €9.7 million over the remaining period.

A further significant element of the additional expenditure is accounted for by an increased investment of €33.045 million in the prisons capital building programme, which includes significant projects at Wheatfield, Portlaoise, Limerick, Loughan House, Shelton Abbey and Castlerea. These developments will provide for new prisoner accommodation and other facilities and form part of an ambitious, overall long-term capital programme, with which the committee will be familiar and, I am sure, appreciates the need for.

On savings under the prisons Vote, the largest single contribution arises under subhead A1 — salaries, wages and allowances — where a saving of €20.951 million is anticipated as a result in part due to the efficiencies introduced on foot of the successful implementation of the proposal for organisational change in the prison service. Another contributory factor is the delayed filling of vacancies within the service, which has now been addressed, with the vacancies set to be filled from a recently established panel.

It will be well appreciated by the committee that, down through the years, all other expenditure items in the Prison Service budget were dictated by the overtime issue. The savings which are now being realised thanks to the organisational changes in the Prison Service, together with the prudent management of the Vote generally, are providing the capacity for additional investment in prisons facilities. The impetus to the capital programme provided in this Supplementary Estimate will further enhance regime activities and prison accommodation, thereby improving the physical environment within which the inherently challenging task of offender management take place.

As I mentioned earlier, a technical Supplementary Estimate only is sought on the courts Vote. The Supplementary Estimate will provide for the utilisation of savings and a once-off surplus under appropriations-in-aid to fund necessary additional expenditure, primarily under subhead A6 — courthouse and office premises expenses, and subhead B — courthouse (capital works). This expenditure relates in the main to maintenance work at a number of court venues and to the cost of a number of newly-renovated courthouses.

Finally, the Vote for the Property Registration Authority is expected to provide a saving of €2 million in 2006. The authority was established on 4 November last pursuant to the provisions of the Registration of Deeds and Title Act 2006 and is responsible for the management and control of the Land Registry and Registry of Deeds. The savings arise due to timing issues under the digital mapping project which nevertheless remains on target for completion within the budget and timeframe originally indicated.

As I have indicated to the committee during our previous discussions, my approach to budgetary and expenditure management in the Justice and Equality area is to maintain a focus at a macro level on the overall Vote group. I do this with the concurrence of the Minister for Finance and it enables me to make adjustments to expenditure across subheads and across the five Votes, should this be necessary. It is inevitable, given the breadth of expenditure programmes captured under the justice group and the different factors influencing each of these, that circumstances will arise whereby certain areas of expenditure cannot proceed at the pace originally planned while others are under pressure to exceed original targets.

The net effect of this flexibility is, as I have indicated at the outset today, that the additional Exchequer funding I am seeking for the Vote group is no more than 1.15% of the total net allocation. I recommend this Supplementary Estimate to the committee and am happy to discuss any questions that arise.

In respect of recidivism rates, which I believe were commented on today, although I have not had the chance to study the findings of the report by the Institute of Criminology at University College Dublin, I very much welcome the report. While these studies are not always directly comparable, we should put on record that the reported long-term recidivism rate of 49.2% is considerably lower than that which was last reported when a report was produced in June 1997 and centred on Mountjoy Prison, which indicated a recidivism rate of 70%. The rates cited are not above rates found generally in western states, which are between 45% and 50%, and indeed seem lower than reconviction rates reported in the UK, where one recent study found that 59% of prisoners were reconvicted within two years of release. Another study indicated that up to 73% of young offenders in the UK were reconvicted within two years. I wish to put this on record because I know the UCD Institute of Criminology report is a very useful benchmark as to what is or is not happening in terms of rehabilitation in our prisons. Looking at it in terms of international comparisons and comparisons with what we knew previously, the figures are not going in the wrong direction, if I may put it that way. Rather they seem to be going in the right direction.

I make my next point without any degree of complacency. Given that certain penal institutions are heavily infiltrated by drug abuse, particularly the presence of hard drugs, we must, in this context, take a long, hard look at whether it is possible to rehabilitate prisoners if there is a significant presence of hard drugs in prisons. We cannot have it both ways. One cannot call for needle exchanges in prisons and then say how shocking it is that people leave Mountjoy Prison and come back in after a short period of time. Either we follow a drug-free strategy or we do not. Either we take the bold steps, such as those in the Prisons Bill 2006 passed by the Seanad yesterday, to introduce powers to back up a drug-free strategy in prisons or we do not. Anyone who says——

I apologise for interjecting. Are drugs inside or outside prison legal?

No. It is a crime to have drugs in prison.

Allow the Tánaiste to conclude.

The Deputy is well aware that drugs are illegal. In the past, some have suggested that if there are drugs outside prisons, I should expect to find them inside. So-called reformers of our penal system have suggested that a drug-free policy is a mistake. It has also been suggested that I should allow needle exchanges and sterilising fluids to be handed out within prisons.

I want to say clearly and unambiguously that if one wishes to complain about the rate of recidivism and, simultaneously, to allow heroin addicts in prison to sustain their habits, has one considered the consequences? There is no rehabilitation if drugs are available to an offender. It brings danger to the prison, corrupts the prison system and means that all efforts at rehabilitation are pointless. A young man — young men comprise the majority of cases — will leave prison with an ongoing and florid drug habit, debts to and connections with outsiders and virtually no chance of rehabilitation outside the system unless there is a miraculous intervention.

We need to concentrate on new, modern prisons with decent medical and rehabilitative facilities and the fresh air and security circumstances in which a drug-free prison programme makes sense. Today, an academic speaking on radio made the point that we need a prison system in which the existing number of prison officers can cater for a substantially higher number of prisoners, rather than having one of the highest officer to prisoner ratios in western Europe. This is what the programme of reform is about.

Recidivism rates are high in our prisons, but they are not disproportionately high in comparison with similar countries. If we want to tackle recidivism, we must tackle drugs in prisons. There is no middle point in this issue; no strategy of soft on drugs, hard on recidivism is available. One cannot be done without the other.

Part of our attention today is focused on prisons. While we will have an opportunity to debate the issue when the Prisons Bill is before the Dáil, I will make a few points in the short time available.

As we are addressing Estimates, I will take up the point raised by Dr. Paul O'Mahony and the Tánaiste, that is, we have the highest ratio of prison officers to prisoners in western Europe. Why is this the case? The Minister's approach to the running of prisons is to save expense to the Exchequer and the taxpayer. After ten years in Government, this large expense is hardly something to be proud of.

Concerning repeat offenders, the report is timely, but apart from the matter of drugs, the Tánaiste has given no clear indication of how he will respond to the issue in the few months in office remaining to him. Stating that the 1997 Mountjoy report displayed a higher rate is not the answer. There does not appear to be a concentrated approach to address the problem of repeat offenders. Surely, that there is such a high rate of recidivism is not news to the Tánaiste. He must have known of it or been advised by his officials accordingly.

It is not appropriate to focus on drugs as the sole problem. I agree that we must aim for drug-free prisons. The issue was the source of a ministerial dispute between the Tánaiste and the Taoiseach's brother.

The Deputy took my side.

How surprised was everyone by that?

I agreed, but with a caveat. Sometimes I get the feeling that the Tánaiste is painting media castles in the air, but I am interested in the practicalities. Discussing prisons on Spike Island disappearing or Thornton Hall, which may also disappear, is all very well, but what about the here and now? The public is interested in finding out why it is not possible to reduce the obvious extent of drug usage in prisons. Like the Tánaiste, I would aim for the ideal of drug-free prisons, but there are none. Why is this the case? If they cannot be drug-free, why can we not reduce the amount of drugs in prisons?

The Tánaiste knows that the issue of the prison population is close to my heart. I am all for putting people into prison and keeping them there.

Even if they are not guilty.

If they are guilty. Deputy Lynch should give me a chance.

It is good to know her colleagues are accorded the same treatment.

I have no sympathy for those who are guilty of serious crimes, particularly crimes of violence against persons. If found guilty, they deserve to be locked up for a long time. On the other side of the argument, there is no point in putting people into prison who should not be there.

Concerning the Estimates, why are there savings in respect of the probation service? Why are more efforts not made and money not invested in it? Why are there not more rehabilitative efforts within the prisons? Regarding people on drugs, the Tánaiste is throwing his hands into the air when he says that there is no chance. It is disgraceful that rehabilitation and education programmes in prisons have been left short of money.

Why do we put some people, such as a lady without the wherewithal to pay a fine of €200 for not paying her television licence, into prison? Last night on television, the Tánaiste's sidekick, Senator Minihan, referred to the need to enforce the law. We should enforce it, that is, collect the money by instalments. In such situations, cashflow problems affect people.

Every year, the Tánaiste puts 2,000 people into prison for non-payment of fines and debts, but a good number of those people could be kept outside at great saving to the Exchequer and the taxpayer. The money could be collected from people's social welfare payments via direct debits or garnishee orders against employers on a weekly instalment basis. It would be a win-win situation, but why has it not happened? A Bill promised by the Government in that regard has not been produced and the Fine Gael Bill was voted down. Why are we wasting money and why are we putting people into prison who should not be there when we could collect the money in other ways?

If we were to examine the categories of people who are in prison, members would not disagree with much of what has been said. Why do people leave prison with a drug habit when they entered prison without a drug habit? There are no options for those who enter prison with a drug habit. Telling addicts that they undergo cold turkey when they enter prison is a dangerous strategy. Options must be made available to people in prison. I know people with alcohol problems who go to prison because it gives the opportunity to dry out. That is not available for hard drug addicts. We need new buildings because the existing buildings are appalling and are unsuitable to keep people. We cannot leave the inmates to the ways of the world in prison.

We must examine rehabilitation. We have a high recidivism rate in Ireland. It should not give us any joy to be at the same rate as other countries. The one prison that was doing tremendous work in this area was Fort Mitchel Prison, Spike Island. In the middle of a melee about who was toughest, the rehabilitation programme was thrown out in the wash. There was an effective education programme there. Young men refer to the programmes they are undertaking because of courses they started in Fort Mitchel. This was a rare case of someone having something positive to say about a prison. They did not like being locked up but their experience was positive. I understand why things like this happen but they should not.

Regarding the probation service——

We are in agreement.

I would not go quite that far——

Do not get carried away.

——even though it is Christmas.

Is there an inability to spend money on the probation service because the places cannot be filled? Is that as a result of the embargo? What is the problem? People who have been involved in this for years tell me the service is being reduced. The juvenile programme is successful when it operates properly. While I do not criticise the increases, subhead A6, welfare services, is the only one where an increase is not sought.

One cannot advocate a tough stand on criminals when there is no option available. The Minister and I know that the prison population comes from the most deprived backgrounds and needs increased support, which is not available. Early release programmes that allow controlled release in halfway houses have been cut back. The tougher attitude to the prison population is adopted without any thought of how we will reintroduce these people to society and stop them reoffending. We all carry this burden. Some may believe this is a burden worth carrying if prisoners are out of sight and out of mind. For certain categories of criminal I suggest locking them up and throwing away the key but the majority of people in our prisons are there for a short term and are not violent. We must do something to ensure they become productive citizens outside the prison and lead lives as fulfilled as ours. It is peculiar that the areas charged with this are the only two areas not seeking increased funding and where last year's allocation has not been spent.

Is there any indication where the new prison in Munster will be?

I had not intended contributing. There can be no grey area in the question of drugs in prison. While someone may enter prison with a habit, feeding it inside and creating debts outside, a worse situation is where a petty criminal without a drug habit comes out as an addict. While I use the term advisedly there must be a zero tolerance attitude to drugs in prison.

The members of the committee, particularly Deputy Hoctor, have done much work on restorative justice. In the context of the Prisons Bill, which has not yet been examined by the committee, do restorative justice proposals offer an alternative to custodial sentences? This would allow criminals to pay for the crime but allow them to become productive members of society, as advocated by Deputy Lynch. Has this model, championed by the committee for some time, been considered?

Given the peculiar circumstances and feuding in Limerick the secure removal of prisoners from Limerick Prison and their arraignment in the District Court has been made difficult. Has the Minister examined the possibility of an on-site District Court where prisoners could be arraigned in a secure environment? This would ensure prisoners do not have to be transferred to a remote location and do not have to interact with people from other gangs. It causes major difficulties and exacerbates the feud. Major Garda resources are needed to keep prisoners away from their own gangs or rival gangs. An on-site facility for arraignments sounds sensible.

The Minister is familiar with the restorative justice project in Nenagh. It is interesting to refer to the UCD findings in the report published today where one in four is seen to reoffend. The offence profile clearly outlined in the report matches that of the restorative justice project in Nenagh where the vast majority are male, single and unemployed. The project is successful because eight out of ten do not reoffend. Money would be wisely spent on an awareness and promotion campaign among the Judiciary, the members of which appear to be slow and unwilling to engage in restorative justice projects. The Nenagh project is funded at a cost of €40,000 per year, with great credit due to the probation and welfare service. The cost of keeping one prisoner in jail is up to €70,000 or €80,000 per year. It is a valuable project initiated by a local judge and through which many people have rebuilt their lives. Other judges should take a leaf out of this book.

Vice Chairman

On the issue raised by the Minister on drugs being the real problem for the revolving door system, does he suggest the initial response from the system to any person with a drug problem convicted of a crime should be to treat the drug problem before the sentence begins? Should this be part and parcel of the sentence? Otherwise, we will not have a drug free prison system and those who go to prison without a habit will be in more danger of picking one up inside. After the long experience we have had, we now come to the conclusion that unless we solve the drug problem of criminals entering prison, we will continue to have the revolving door system.

I will begin with the Vice Chairman's point. The phrase "revolving door" is used to describe many things. When we did not have adequate prison space, we had a revolving door which resulted in 15% to 20% of prisoners being on temporary release at any given stage. That is not the case now and the current situation is radically different.

The Government built more than 1,200 prison spaces during the past ten years. This has had the effect of modernising our prison stock. The Midlands Prison is one example, as are units in other prisons. Allowing for the closure of the prisons on Spike Island and in the Curragh, more than 800 additional prison spaces were introduced during the past ten years.

Deputy Lynch asked why the probation and welfare service did not spend all of its money. It is undergoing a radical transformation. Its new head is Mr. Michael Donnellan who has a strong programme of reform, expansion and refocusing. I allocated him a 19% increase in funds for 2007. As the Deputy appreciates, it was not for lack of funds that it was curtailed last year. Owing to the restructuring programme, it had difficulty in attracting new staff, for which money was provided. It is not an easy area in which to recruit staff. They must be skilled. By the same token, many of those eligible to be probation and welfare officers are in secure employment elsewhere. Getting them to shift can be difficult. We need high quality staff but it is difficult to attract and retain them in the system.

Regarding the Vice Chairman's point on persons with a drug habit going into prison, the plan is that they will be dealt with immediately on entering prison. They will be assessed and dealt with in a comprehensive medical and psychological management and rehabilitative programme. That is what the strategy is all about.

We cannot pretend we will get drug-free prisoners. One cannot simply go on a cold turkey regime, as Deputy Lynch pointed out. Something must be done for a person in those circumstances. One cannot brutalise people by putting their bodies in a clinical crisis. Methadone is available. In some cases valium is used as an alternative to methadone to get people through the early period. Methadone treatment is provided to a considerable degree in the prison system. However, unless methadone is part of a programme, it is purely a maintenance solution. It is not a long-term solution.

Deputy O'Keeffe asked why the ratio of prison officers to prisoners was so high. He stated he thought I was in the business of saving money. We saved colossal sums by introducing the annualised hours system. I found it extraordinary that we had this massively disproportionate ratio of prison officers to prisoners, on top of which we had a colossal overtime bill. It seemed inexplicable, bearing in mind the high ratio. It motivated me to take on the issue with a vigorous approach.

I carefully monitored the introduction of the annualised hours system which has been a success and is working. Although it was vigorously opposed by a minority of prison officers who made big money out of the old system, the vast majority of young and upcoming prison officers did not want to face into a life of spending interminable hours in prisons earning colossal sums in overtime. They value their time. They want to be out with their families and play golf or attend football matches. They do not want to spend half their lives in old and antiquated prisons.

The physical structure of many of our prisons is not conducive to low ratios of prison officers to prisoners. That is one of the arguments which enabled me to succeed with the Department of Finance in securing support for projects such as that at Thornton Hall. The more than 1:1 ratio in Mountjoy Prison could easily be reduced to 0.6 at Thornton Hall owing to different methods of handling offenders, supervision methods and security arrangements.

I do not know whether many of the Deputies present have visited prisons. Most of the equipment used is extremely antiquated. Prison officers personally attend points within prisons which should be capable of being monitored by CCTV systems. Keys are used to go from one portion of a prison to another. In many prisons we introduced palm readers to ensure staff would not be required to admit persons from one portion of a jail to another.

In Mountjoy Prison I was faced with the proposition that I either introduce sanitation and modern equipment or relocate the prison. Having taken a long hard look at the matter, the Irish Prison Service, the Department and I came to the conclusion that the former option would mean throwing good money after bad. Mountjoy is fundamentally unsuitable to be a prison, one reason being the introduction of drugs by catapults.

To put the matter in context, one does not need to be a drug addict to smuggle drugs into prisons. Upright decent prisoners so trusted that they work in a community hall during the day as part of a work programme will be visited and the message will be given clearly in the prison that if they do not carry a package back into prison, they or their relatives will get a very nasty surprise. This is extremely difficult to control. If the strategy to keep out drugs relies purely on perimeter searches rather than mandatory drug testing, searches within prisons and the use of sniffer dogs, it would be difficult to prevent the entry of drugs into prison.

Are sniffer dogs used?

We have one at present and I understand a second dog has just arrived.

That must be one of the solutions.

Both inside prisons and in prison visiting areas, dogs are more effective and practicable than visual inspections and searches and I want to extend their use across the board. If drugs can be catapulted into exercise yards, which is the case in city centre prisons, or by means of blackmailing drug-free prisoners, the perimeter strategy simply does not work. That is the reason for the drug free strategy but such a strategy requires mandatory testing and rehabilitative programmes. Decent facilities will have to be provided for medical personnel and trained prison officers so they can interact with prisoners during therapy sessions. Having visited Mountjoy Prison and after inspecting its medical facilities, I am aware the staff there are swimming against the tide and it is almost impossible to believe they will succeed to any appreciable extent. I pay tribute to the people who work in those harsh conditions and do not want to be seen to criticise them, but anybody walking around Mountjoy would see the need for its demolition. The same applies, although in slightly different circumstances, to Cork Prison because accommodation there is also cramped and overcrowded. Amazingly, when parts of that prison were built in the 1980s, the Department decided against providing sanitation facilities in the new cells. I do not know what mindset led to such a decision.

There is a maze of alleyways within Cork Prison, which causes problems in terms of control.

It is a dark and overpowering prison, although it is well run by its governors. I do not criticise the staff when I say it is not a good place in which to keep prisoners. Deputy Lynch asked about the Munster prison. I do not want to be dictatorial or arrogant on this matter.

The Minister never would be so.

Perish the thought.

I am prepared to redevelop the Spike Island complex as the site of a major prison. However, there is no point in constructing a facility without providing access by bridge and this alone would cost between €20 million and €25 million. The Deputy will be aware that a popular movement has developed in Cork regarding this issue.

I was not referring to the physical location of a prison but the activities taking place therein.

The Deputy will be aware of a campaign to preserve the site as a tourist and cultural facility rather than allow it to be developed into a major prison. I do not wish to stand in the way of such a campaign if it reflects the feelings of the people of the region. Preliminary discussions have been held with the Department of Defence regarding a site at Kilworth, where the Department owns a considerable area of land. I am happy to report that public representatives in the area appear to unanimously support the idea.

I thought Deputy Ned O'Keeffe was somewhat concerned.

No, he is very enthusiastic about the idea. The problem with Spike Island, as anybody who has seen it will agree, is that we would have to build around the historic monument located in the middle of the island. I am prepared to consider the Kilworth site because it has the advantage of being in State ownership, which would avoid a repeat of the Thornton Hall saga, and I think the people of Fermoy and Mitchelstown would welcome a facility which, although not on their doorstep, would be within commuting distance.

Before I discuss alternatives to custody, I remind the select committee that we recently passed a Criminal Justice Act which provides for enlightened new procedures on sentencing, such as partly suspended sentences and a substantial overhang of suspended portions. These provisions will inhibit recidivism if they are intelligently used by the Judiciary. If, for example, three years out of a five year sentence imposed for burglary are suspended unless further offences are committed during the period of the sentence, that could be a disincentive to recidivism. People are sent to jail as a punishment and for rehabilitation rather than to be punished.

The Criminal Justice Act provides the Judiciary with the power to require sex and drug offenders to participate in programmes as part of structured sentences and permits a District Court judge to impose a fine while deferring his or her decision on a prison sentence. That represents a serious effort to get the District Court to deal with cases of public violence by refusing to let the offender off with a fine or community service. Offenders will not be able to leave court with smiles on their faces because they will have deferred prison sentences hanging over them. These new sentencing procedures are now available to the Judiciary.

I strongly support the concept of restorative justice. Recently, I attended a conference on the matter which came to some fruitful conclusions. Restorative justice projects have been established in Nenagh and Tallaght, and I commend Deputy Hoctor, Judge Michael Reilly and Judge James Paul McDonnell in this regard, as well as the Tallaght voluntary services. Tremendous work has been done in terms of establishing both projects as models for study. Although they are costly, they represent good value for the community when compared to the average cost of keeping a prisoner in custody because they are much more successful with regard to recidivism rates. I am aware, however, that the figures are skewed in that a repeat drug addict is unlikely to succeed in a restorative justice programme without addressing his or her habit.

People can use figures for whatever purpose they wish but the number of people in prison on any given day for unpaid fines is in the order of 1%.

That represents approximately 50 per day.

I am referring to the number of people who are in prison at any given time. Most pay the fine when they are brought to prison, at which point they are sent home. The message sent is that they cannot simply blow kisses to a court which has imposed a fine. Deputy Jim O'Keeffe made a valid point on the fines Bill, which I hope to publish in the coming weeks. Like the Deputy, I have been impatient at the delays on that legislation.

Most cases heard before the Central Criminal Court will result in jail sentences on conviction, whereas 2,437 of the criminal cases before the Circuit Court in 2005 were convicted on indictment, of which 60%, approximately 1,400 to 1,500 people, resulted in prison sentences.

Of the summary cases dealt with in the District Court, 302,134 were dealt with in the same year. Some 200,000 were traffic cases, in which the imposition of a prison sentence would have been exceptional. A term of imprisonment was imposed in only 9,959 cases in the District Court, a tiny fraction of the number in the Circuit Court, as one would expect. As one goes down the list in terms of seriousness, the proportion of non-custodial sentences increases greatly. Cases in the District Court involving imprisonment represented 3.3% of the gross total, or 9.8% excluding traffic offences. Excluding such offences is not good because it leaves cases involving littering and television licence fee and bin charge defaulters. Fines were applied in 86,000 cases, probation orders in 18,000 and community service orders in 1,244. The ratio of prison sentences to community service orders was 9,000:1,200, or 7.5:1. This must improve. Because many prison sentences are appealed to the Circuit Court, I will have to examine the figures to be sure they are gross or net figures. Of 41,374 indictable cases which were tried summarily, a term of imprisonment was imposed in 8,000 or 20% of cases. That is the more serious end of the District Court spectrum. Probation orders were applied in 7,000 cases, fines in 5,284 and community service orders in 766. The picture is disappointing in the sense that non-custodial sentences are not used as much as they should be. We intend to establish a group next year to study the roll-out of the restorative justice system across the country based on experience to date.

I thank the Minister. We will have other opportunities to discuss these issues, particularly when we come to deal with the Prisons Bill.

Will the text appear in the record of the committee?

Vice Chairman