I propose to take Questions Nos. 161 to 166, inclusive, together.
Ways of dealing more effectively with the impact that crime has on its victims have long been the subject of discussion and research. One intervention methodology which has developed as a response to criminal offending is victim-centred restorative justice. It is a methodology which, by its very nature, is evolving and developing further in response to the challenges facing the criminal justice system.
The Probation Service has for many years played a key role in the delivery of restorative justice practice as part of its overall mission of reducing re-offending and further victimisation in our communities. It is engaged in work in courts, communities and prisons. On any given day, up to 10,000 offenders, who are at different stages in the criminal justice process, are registered with the Probation Service. Although victims of crime may initiate a request for a restorative justice intervention at any stage in the criminal justice process, the interventions take place post-conviction. The interventions are part of court assessment and court orders, including community and prison based sanctions.
In the details supplied with this question, the Deputy refers to the recommendations contained in a study called "Sexual Trauma and Abuse: Restorative and Transformation Possibilities?" published in 2014. This study examined the potential of restorative justice to address the aftermath of sexual trauma and violence. Officials in my Department subsequently met with the author of the report and a research consultant to discuss the findings of the research. At that meeting, a case was made for establishing a stand-alone restorative justice service; one of the arguments being that the Probation Service is aligned in the public mind with offenders, not victims.
Following consideration of the matter, the then Minister took the view that the restorative justice model was properly located within the Probation Service. This view was informed by the expertise and skills of the service in working to reduce offending and victimisation in our communities, with the victim at the centre of this work. The Probation Service has been providing restorative justice services since the late 1990s through experienced and trained staff and in collaboration with its dedicated Community Based Organisations. I too am satisfied that the Probation Service has the expertise to continue its work in reducing offending and victimisation in our communities, including through the restorative justice model.
After the meeting with the authors of the 2014 Report, the then Minister asked the Probation Service to examine and make a proposal for the provision of a restorative Justice pilot programme for victims of sexual crime. In 2015 the Probation Service established a small two-year pilot programme, under the auspices of its Victim Services Team, to respond to requests from victims of sexual crime for victim-offender mediation. The pilot operated within a dedicated national structure, with all services provided by trained, experienced staff and with appropriate oversight and support. A review of the programme was undertaken by the Probation Service, covering the period September, 2015 to January, 2018. Its conclusions were that:
- A timely and effective response was provided to all requests for victim offender mediation.
- The availability of structured protocols to guide implementation was critical to ensuring effective and accountable practice.
- There is a need to ensure that there is an even spread of expertise across prisons and community.
- The provision of supervision and the use of peer support was central to the pilot and critical to safe and effective interventions.
- Liaison with partner agencies and NGOs was positive.
A dedicated Restorative Justice and Victim Services Unit in the Probation Service, with a national remit, commenced operation in September, 2018. This Unit provides leadership and support for the consistent delivery of restorative justice models across the organisation. The work of this Unit will continue to support and monitor the safe and effective delivery of restorative justice services to victims.
In my response to Dáil Question No. 167 of 13 March, 2019, I said that between January 2016 and January 2018 four requests for mediation were received under the pilot scheme. It would not be appropriate for me to indicate if all four cases resulted in victim-offender mediation. This is because, while the process is entirely confidential and facilitated by trained staff, the numbers are small enough to allow for identification of the individuals involved. As a general point, the process is wholly voluntary with either of the parties having the option to withdraw at any stage.
As to whether the existence of the dedicated restorative justice and victim services unit has been sufficiently widely advertised, there is on-going collaboration with victim advocacy organisations to facilitate contact by victims, as well as collaboration with other criminal justice agencies, such as An Garda Síochána and the Irish Prisons Service.
The Probation Service engages in other activities both to advertise its work in this area and to learn from restorative practices elsewhere. For example, it held a seminar on the subject of restorative justice during International Restorative Justice week last November. The subject was also discussed with a number of advocacy groups at an event on 22 February, 2019 to mark European Day for Victims of Crime. The Probation Service also made a presentation at a conference on Restorative Justice held in Maynooth University on 1 March, 2019. This conference served as the Irish launch of a four year project called "Restorative Justice: Strategies for Change" which is taking place in nine other European countries.