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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). (12 Mar 2012)


[Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan: ] Some of these minor crimes result from addiction and alcoholism, but those who deal with their issues, attend rehab services, complete the 12 step programmes and have turned their lives around towards sobriety may not be housed by the local authority if they have a conviction, a sentence, a fine or a caution relating to that drug or alcohol use. For this reason, people coming out of rehab services or prison may not be housed and will move into emergency accommodation. This is very expensive and not always appropriate because it means they are mixing with people in a state of addiction, which will not help their recovery. They often end up homeless and the cycle begins again. I would like to see the Bill extended to include the provision of housing in a balanced and fair way. 

With regard to enforcement powers and penalties, the enforcement-investigation powers of the Data Protection Commissioner should be extended to include complaints under the scheme. There must be some penalty system or enforcement will not be effective. A scheme that aims to facilitate the reintegration of ex-offenders into society must be welcomed. However, the gaps in the proposed legislation must be addressed. The Minister spoke about not doing enough, but the Bill only goes just a short way in this area.
I would like to mention two projects. The first, not in my constituency, is called Care after Prison in the Dublin 2 and Dublin 8 areas. This project is a partnership between a group of people, the Carmelite community and the Dublin YMCA. In the past year and a half it has worked with over 160 ex-offenders. It provides a range of services, including counselling and peer support. It has provided from its own resources a highly committed and motivated experienced team which provides information and support, whether to do with counselling, housing, training or education. The recidivism rate for those participating in the project is 0%. The budget for the project in the past year was €29,400, a small proportion of which came from the local authority. If we are serious about preventing recidivism, this is a project that works and I see no reason not to look at it more seriously. It costs €14,000 to keep a person on methadone for one year. We have a project that is working to help keep people totally drug free, saving €14,000, but that money is not being returned to it to help more people to become drug free.
Deputy Mick Wallace:

We all have a common interest in reducing the level of crime. A strong spent convictions Bill would help to do this, but a weak one will add to the level of crime. Most of us have been victims of crime at some stage. At one time, when I was undertaking civil works for Dublin City Council, I was robbed 25 times in one year and not once did I get anything back, as it was mostly small machinery that was stolen. I also had a JCB excavator burned out in Finglas, a mini-digger taken in Dame Lane, a lorry taken in Russell Street, while a crane was sabotaged when the copper cable was removed from it. It was worth about €15,000 at the time. These crimes do not warm people to criminals, but we must understand there is a reason for their behaviour. We should not forget that the greatest suffering inflicted on Irish people in recent years was not caused by burglars in jeans but by professionals in designer suits.

The majority of people in prison come from a small number of disadvantaged communities. If we want to reduce the level of crime, the focus of imprisonment must be on rehabilitation, given that repeat offenders play a major role in crime levels. The rate of repeat offences is high - one of every two people leaving prison will be back again within four years. Peter McVerry who knows more about prisons and crime problems than any of us asks why we should be surprised by this because great numbers of prisoners spend their time in overcrowded, drug filled and violent prisons, with little or no constructive activity to occupy them. The only skill many prisoners acquire while in prison is how to commit crime more successfully on their release. Peter McVerry says many people leave prison without any arrangement being put in place to ensure they have accommodation, access to a social welfare payment or supports to help them to adjust to life outside.
When people are in custody, we have a great opportunity to address the personal difficulties they have experienced. We also have a duty of care to ensure that on release, they have some chance of not sliding rapidly back into a life of crime. Ultimately, society's "us" and "them" mentality towards criminals prevents a serious attempt to reduce crime levels. Most people now know that 196 young people died in or shortly after leaving the care of the State in the decade 2000 to 2010. Most died from unnatural causes, a drug overdose, by suicide or as a result of violence. An investigation was carried out, followed by a report and there was widespread outrage at the failure of the State to adequately care for the young people concerned. In the same decade 135 people died while in prison or within one month of leaving prison. In other words, at the time of their deaths, they were or had recently been in the care of the State. Most died from unnatural causes, a drug overdose, by suicide and as a result of violence. However, there was no investigation, no report and no outrage. There was no comment from any politician and no commitment to deal with the deficiencies in the system that may have led to some of their deaths.
Sadly, the Criminal Justice (Spent Convictions) Bill retains a strong element of the "us" and "them" mentality. It allows prison sentences of 12 months or less for certain types of offences to be considered spent after a period of time in an attempt to assist the rehabilitation of ex-offenders. It also applies to suspended sentences of up to 24 months and lesser penalties such as community service or fines. However, the Irish Penal Reform Trust which is committed to reducing imprisonment and the progressive reform of the penal system, based on evidence-led policies, points out that the definition of "excluded sentences" in section 1 of the Bill sets out the maximum custodial sentence at 12 months imprisonment. This means that only those who have spent 12 months or less in prison may have their convictions considered spent. The Irish Penal Reform Trust argues that this should be extended at least to sentences of 30 months and ideally to sentences of 48 months or less. It states the limit of 12 months could be raised without any risk to public safety or of diminishing the punishment handed down by the courts.
Spent convictions are not about mitigating punishment but about rehabilitation and acknowledging the person's successful effort to move on from offending behaviour. It is about supporting change in behaviour by removing barriers to participation in employment, education and other aspects of day to day life. The Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, has stated the UK legislation is now the most liberal in the Commonwealth, with a limit of 48 months, and that in comparison to Australia and New Zealand, what is being proposed in the Bill is liberal. However, the Irish Penal Reform Trust argues that we should look closer to home for best practice. In countries such as France, Germany, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Spain and Italy the individual who is the subject of the criminal record search is generally the only person allowed to request the information. Moreover, the emphasis in Europe is more on an individual's right for the crime to be forgotten, particularly in France, rather than the employer's right to know. As well as this, the Irish Human Rights Commission, the Irish Penal Reform Trust and the Mercy Law Resource Centre have all recommended that a broad prohibition on discrimination on grounds of criminal conviction must be introduced into equality legislation. They have argued that the impact of the Criminal Justice (Spent Convictions) Bill is diminished in the absence of such a prohibition.
There is a need to decriminalise certain kinds of offences. A six year study of drug laws in Britain by leading scientists, police officers, academics and experts has concluded that it is time to introduce decriminalisation of certain drugs.
Deputy Luke 'Ming' Flanagan: Hear, hear.
Deputy Mick Wallace:

The report by the UK Drug Policy Commission, an independent advisory body, states possession of small amounts of controlled drugs should no longer be a criminal offence. The commission concludes that such a move would not lead to a significant increase in use. The experts say criminal sanctions should be replaced with simple civil penalties such as a fine, attendance at a drug awareness session or a referral to a drug treatment programme. They also say imposing minimal or no sanctions on those growing cannabis for personal use could go some way towards undermining the increasing number of illicit cannabis factories controlled by organised crime. These issues are as relevant in Ireland as they are in Britain and we need to take a serious look at them.

Deputy Luke 'Ming' Flanagan: This is a mean-spirited Bill which has been designed by people who come from an area with a low crime and have no understanding of how others have encountered problems in the first place. Worse still, people in this country who come from the "right" area will potentially not even have to go to court in the first place. I will give some examples….
[For full debate click on link above]

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