Home > Dail Eireann debate: Criminal Justice (Spent Convictions) Bill 2012 [Seanad]: Second Stage (Resumed) (Continued).

[Oireachtas] Dail Eireann debate: Criminal Justice (Spent Convictions) Bill 2012 [Seanad]: Second Stage (Resumed) (Continued). (14 Mar 2013)

External website: https://www.oireachtas.ie/en/debates/debate/dail/2...

[Deputy Simon Harris: ] We need to consider beefing up our vetting systems, youth diversion programmes and the link with breaking the cycle, so that when people come out of prison, we keep them out. 


Deputy David Stanton: I propose to share time with Deputy Tom Hayes. I welcome the Bill, which is timely if not overdue. It shows we are becoming more progressive in our dealings with the criminal justice system. I am the Chairman of the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality and Defence and we have done work on penal reform. We have visited other jurisdictions to see what they are doing.

If someone makes a minor mistake resulting in a conviction, having paid a fine or served a sentence, the conviction stays with the person for the rest of his or her life. If that is the case, it is a lifelong sentence. It is progressive to make provision that certain convictions do not have to be disclosed. It does not expunge, as other jurisdictions do, nor does it delete the record but the person does not have to declare it.
Looking at the wider criminal justice system, the number of people we are incarcerated every year is frightening. In 2011, the total number incarcerated was 13,900. The prisons cannot accommodate that number of people so many are in and out with short sentences. In 2010, the number was 13,700 and in 2009, it was 12,000. Quite a number of these are short-term sentences for minor offences yet until now convictions remain on the record.
I recently visited the community courts in New York and I was amazed at how they operate. Crime in New York has dropped dramatically. I met many experts and they are not sure why it happened, with many reasons put forward. One of the reasons put to us was the role of community courts in the city. I visited one of them and I sat at the bench with the judge as she dispensed justice. Someone commits a minor misdemeanour or violation and, if it is decided the person may benefit from the community courts, the person presents before the community court the following morning. There is no delay. The person may spend the night in a cell but presents at the community court next morning. Before doing so, much work goes into having previous convictions, if any, available to the judge. The person pleads guilty to the offence, so there is no argument, and the judge decides whether the person should spend more time in prison. Some 89% of the time, the persons receive some form of community service. In approximately two minutes, the case is dealt with and the person receives one, two or four days of community service. The person immediately reports to a different section in the court building and very often the community service is carried out that day. Provided the person is not arrested within six months, the person's record will be sealed and will be opened only in the event of another incident occurring.
Recidivism has dropped from 80% to 18% in New York and the number of people hanging around the streets, who were causing all sorts of problems, has also dropped. Justice is immediate. The community also benefits because people are often told to clean off graffiti, sweep the streets or work with a voluntary charity. The value to the community has increased dramatically. The person is monitored by social workers and probation officers for a considerable period afterwards. Reports are sent to the judge over the course of six months. People who reoffend or who are wavering can be called into the judge. People can also take their chances in the ordinary courts, which are more punitive. It is an amazing system.
Some ten years ago, work was done in Dublin to establish a similar system here. As Chairman of the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality and Defence, I will ask my colleagues to examine this. It is one of the most innovative and exciting systems I have seen and it shows results. It relates to this Bill because convictions in the community courts are also spent convictions but it happens immediately. The judges are highly trained and very professional. One judge specialises in the area and it works.
The model we have in Ireland is called the drug treatment courts. There is one in Dublin and it has been very successful. I commend those working there. The Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, expanded its remit to cover all of Dublin and I would like to see it covering the whole country. Where the drug treatment court is successful, the same principle applies. If people graduate from a programme proposed by the drug treatment court, they do not receive a prison sentence. Records can be expunged completely. People must enter a programme and keep in regular contact with the drug treatment court team. They must agree a drug treatment plan and a personal progression plan. By the end of the phase, the person should have reduced the use of drugs, particularly the drug of choice, be involved in part-time education and training and clearly show that he or she is willing to make positive lifestyle changes. This is happening here at present. I would like to see work done on establishing a community court in Dublin. It almost happened a number of years ago and there was much goodwill towards the idea. It would be innovative and challenging but worth doing.
The US has a Centre for Court Innovation and there is also a branch in London. We could benefit from their experience, knowledge and success to date. I welcome the Bill and encourage the Minister and his officials to carry on their progressive work. They should go further and consider the possibility of expanding the drug treatment court nationally and introduce community courts.
If someone comes to the attention of the Garda Síochána or is arrested in possession of a small amount of marijuana or cannabis, the person must be prosecuted if he or she is an adult. In other jurisdictions, people are sent to drug treatment courts rather than prosecuted. Everyone gets one chance but on the second occasion people are prosecuted. I am not talking about legalising drugs. Portugal has done some work in this area and the results to date seem to be successful. If someone is in possession of a small amount of cannabis, we must consider whether we should throw the full weight of the criminal justice system at that person or whether we should say he or she has a problem and needs treatment. We could send such persons for treatment and allow them to have no conviction, provided they stay clear for a period of time....

[For full debate click on this link to the Oireachtas website]

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