Expansion of the Probation Service: Motion.

Wednesday, 30 April 1997

Seanad Éireann Debate
Vol. 151 No. 6

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Dr. Henry: Information on Mary E.F. Henry  Zoom on Mary E.F. Henry  I move:

That Seanad Éireann calls on the Minister for Justice to expand the probation service and encourage its potential particularly in view of the increased needs in the family courts and within the prisons, and to use the probation service to the utmost effect to keep young offenders out of prison.

The Minister has a very difficult brief regarding the sanctions to be imposed on sentenced persons. There is great enthusiasm among the media, the general public and many politicians for increasing the number of prison spaces and conferring jail sentences on most of those convicted. The prison population has doubled since the early seventies but no one is suggesting that the crime rate has halved.

I applaud the Minister's efforts to improve the conditions within our prisons and particularly the building programme on which she has embarked to provide more modern prisons rather than Victorian monuments. I am delighted she signed the contract for the women's prison. This is long overdue. I remember the appalling interior of the women's prison previous to the one currently being used. I also look forward to the Minister signing the contract to commence work on the Clondalkin site. However, I urge her to look at a most neglected area — the Probation and Welfare Service.

The origins of probation go back to the latter part of the 19th century when police court missionaries, without official status, were appointed by some voluntary societies to help offenders who had been conditionally discharged by the courts under the terms of the Summary Jurisdiction Act, 1879, and the Probation of First Offenders Act, 1887, on their giving assurances to be of good behaviour and to appear for sentence if called upon.

This informal system of supervision was given legal force by the Probation of Offenders Act, 1907. That Act provided that probation could be imposed in the case of all offences punishable by a magistrates court and any offence punishable with imprisonment by a superior court. The Act also empowered magistrates to appoint probation officers and required the courts to pay the officers so appointed. This was extended in the seventies into the Probation and Welfare Service.

The Probation and Welfare Service's main emphasis is on turning offenders away from committing further offences through a system of intervention, including supervision, monitoring, counselling, treatment, training and therapeutic and education programmes. Increasingly programmes are embodying an element of retribution to society, such as community service, as [489] well as challenging the offender to look at and change his or her behaviour.

Given the choice, most offenders would wish the approval of society rather than its rejection. The work of the Probation and Welfare Service falls broadly into the following categories. First, the preparation of pre-sanction reports for the courts; second, the supervision of offenders in the community, probation, intensive probation, community service orders, deferred supervision and temporary release; third, provision of welfare services to offenders in prisons and places of detention; fourth, the provision of services to a range of special projects such as hostels, workshops and special schools and, fifth, non-criminal work such as Family Law Court assessments and adoption reports.

It is recognised that the service is grossly understaffed and underfunded. Despite the fact that the Law Reform Commission report on sentencing, published last year, recommended that the probation service should be the primary target for additional resources in the area of sentencing, the whole emphasis regarding sentencing appears to be custodial.

Probation, particularly intensive probation, is not a soft option for offenders. It is difficult and painful to change life patterns and the service has been informed by certain offenders that they would prefer to go to prison than partake in a particular programme of intensive probation.

Probation is most suitable for people who have problems and who wish to bring about some change in their offending behaviour. A person is usually placed on probation subsequent to a social inquiry report prepared for the courts. In the light this report, probation officers make an assessment of the offender's willingness to change and, therefore, his or her suitability for probation. This is particularly important in the case of offenders involved with illegal drugs.

While no research has been carried out, the Law Reform Commission has stated that, in the experience of officers working in the courts, the effectiveness of probation is shown by the fact that a significant number of those involved do not make further court appearances.

The intensive probation scheme was established in the early nineties. The majority of its referrals are from Circuit Court orders. Others who avail of the service are prisoners on temporary release. This is a problem as temporary release is often granted on an unstructured basis. There may be no probation officer available to undertake work immediately a prisoner is released. However, this scheme tries to concentrate on serious, persistent offenders.

Phase one of the scheme involves a detailed assessment period and phase two is a four month, group work programme. While on the programme, participants are encouraged to explore, identify and change their patterns of offending behaviour. They are also encouraged to accept responsibility for their behaviour and thereby begin to exercise more control over their lives so [490] that they also consider the consequences of their offending on the victims of crime. Participants get an opportunity to deal with their personal problems, undertake work training courses and to follow through on job opportunities. While the main focus of the programme is to challenge offenders to look at their offending behaviour, it also provides a broad rehabilitative and social education programme. It is most intensive and requires many man hours.

The scheme operates in Dublin and Cork only and it should be expanded. If, as it appears, intensive probation provides an effective means of encouraging offenders to desist from offending, the necessary resources should be allocated to it, at least an amount equal to the estimated savings from not having to keep offenders in custody. The estimated cost of keeping somebody in custody is £45,000 per year. When one thinks of the difference between that and having somebody on an intensive probation order, the expense is enormous. The scheme combines rehabilitation with the incapacitation provided by the intensity of the supervision. Whereas rehabilitation or incapacitation do not constitute satisfactory objects of sentencing in isolation, the combination works well. The Law Reform Commission is satisfied that even the most rudimentary cost-benefit analysis would indicate that the probation service “should be a primary target for additional resources in the area of sentencing”.

The hard, cynical “professional” criminal is not the most common customer before the courts. On 17 April 1997, a graph in The Irish Times compared the prison populations in this jurisdiction with those in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Nearly 28 per cent of our prison population is less than 21 years of age while in Northern Ireland it is 19 per cent and only 12 per cent in Scotland. This is despite the fact that the rate of imprisonment in the Republic is significantly lower than in either Northern Ireland or Scotland. In the Republic the rate of imprisonment is 58 per 100,000 inhabitants, in Scotland it is 109 and in Northern Ireland it is 117. This situation should be addressed urgently and is an important reason for expanding and better financing the probation service. Many young people in prison have already been through the probation service but, without being unkind, what kind of service was it? The resources of the probation service at present are such that the service is unable to undertake its tasks.

The management of offenders plan, launched by the previous Minister for Justice in 1994, highlights the problem of lack of aftercare for offenders. It states:

One of the greatest difficulties facing offenders, and especially those who have served long prison sentences, is that of coping in the community when released from custody. Very often they have no option but to return to the social scene which contributed to their wrong doing in the first place with very little prospect of gaining employment. Many may [491] also be facing debts and other pressures unavoidably brought about by dependants during their absence. Although the prison system has no “hold” on an offender, once released, and no authority to direct his or her behaviour in any way, there is no doubt but that a proportion of offenders would welcome the guidance and assistance of the Probation and Welfare Service in helping them to resettle in the community. The Department considers that formalised aftercare arrangements for offenders should therefore be put in place.

Successive recommendations of the Department of Justice seek a better probation service.

The victims of crime, when asked their opinion, frequently stress they do not seek retribution but that an offender should reform and not behave in such an anti-social way again. Victim impact statements are being given more weight by the courts and their views on the probation service should be sought by the Department of Justice.

The Garda juvenile liaison scheme has been a great success. Nearly 90 per cent of those involved do not reoffend before they are 18 years of age. The Minister has decided to put the scheme on a statutory basis. A properly resourced Probation and Welfare Service could do just as well.

Mr. Quinn: Information on Fergal Quinn  Zoom on Fergal Quinn  I support the motion and Senator Henry's impassioned plea for consideration of the Probation and Welfare Service. Her words must strike all Members because they give the Minister an important option. With limited funds the Minister must aim to overcome the crime problem in the best possible manner and the Probation and Welfare Service offers the best hope of achieving that. Senator Henry has made the case that the underfunding of that service means an opportunity to achieve a higher level of success in this area is being lost.

The Minister can use technology to help the Probation and Welfare Service. If we are to aim at success in this area, we must look at the best means of achieving it. A win, win situation is possible if money is invested in preventing future crimes rather than just being used to protect society and for retribution and punishment. The Minister has put a great deal of effort into preventing crime. However, probation can provide a win, win solution. Senator Henry spoke about training and education. If it is possible to find the best way to train and educate a person who is on probation, that individual can achieve success and confidence. If somebody is able to achieve success rather than always being put down, they begin to blossom and believe in themselves.

I wish to refer to one development in technology which might help the Minister — electronic tagging. It is a development we discussed previously and it has been most successful in the United States. Electronic tagging could free many prison places. Our prisons are grossly overcrowded [492] which renders them inhumane and a breeding ground for future crime. However, many prisoners could safely be released if we could devise a suitable means of monitoring their movements. That means, electronic tagging, now exists and has proven successful in other jurisdictions.

By using electronic tagging, a released prisoner and his or her probation officer can stay in contact. The tagging is a significant restriction of the released prisoner's freedom and fulfils the needs of the penal system. However, it does not involve the expense and the other huge disadvantages which result from incarceration in unsuitable circumstances. A great deal has been written about electronic tagging, and the Department of Justice and Garda headquarters must have a great deal of information about it. We discussed it a couple of years ago with regard to bail, but it was regarded as unsuitable for use in those circumstances.

However, electronic tagging is suitable for use within the Probation and Welfare Service. It would mean that somebody who is released on probation can remain in their own home. The person can be tagged to travel only to where they work and they can be tagged for the day, time and area to which they may travel. They can, for example, go to church on Sunday and to work on weekdays. They are restricted in a manner which is in their own hands. They can stay at home and enjoy the protection of the family environment, which will perhaps lead them away from bad company.

I call on the Minister to conduct an urgent examination of the possibilities created by this modern technology. It is time we brought our penal institutions into the 21st century. I understand the information is available in the Department of Justice and Garda headquarters and that as every month goes by this technology is improved in other parts of the world.

We cannot ignore Senator Henry's emphasis on the need for probation and welfare. Sending someone who is not a first time criminal but is on the road to criminality to jail will push them further. Some prisons have a bigger drug problem than others. I am not sure why. The availability of drugs in Mountjoy Prison is a huge problem compared to that in Cork Prison. There should be an examination of how drugs get in, what causes it and whose responsibility it is.

We are trying to highlight Senator Henry's concerns about our inability to use the best means available to solve the problems of criminality in the future. More emphasis should be placed on keeping people out of prison and away from the dangers it presents — particularly Mountjoy as compared to Cork. I am sure there are reasons for this which deserve attention and critical analysis.

I second Senator Henry's urgent plea and her impassioned words in trying to draw attention to the benefits to be gained from probation and welfare rather than incarceration.

[493]Mr. Neville: Information on Dan Neville  Zoom on Dan Neville  I welcome this motion and congratulate Senator Henry for tabling it. I am aware of the Senator's concern about this issue, which we have discussed in the past, and her caring approach to prisons, prison officers, prisoners and offenders. I congratulate the probation service for the work it has done, often with limited resources. It has maximised its work with the resources available to it. There was an increase of ten probation officers and 12 staff in all in the Minister's crime plan. This is an important start, but is not a completion of what is required to ensure the probation service provides a full and professional service to its clients.

The probation service is involved in many areas. We often concentrate on the work it does for early offenders or those who receive probation. However, it is also involved in background work in the criminal courts where it produces many reports on those who commit crime. In recent years the number of reports produced has been around 6,000 annually. This is quite a volume of work which the probation service carries out to inform the courts of the background of offenders to ensure they take all aspects of the offender's position into account. This is an important service as it ensures that justice is fully done.

Sometimes we query the inadequacy of sentencing and in certain cases we are correct. However, we must always temper our views on the basis that the probation service has completed its report to the court. Sometimes we may be too quick on the draw in airing our views without full knowledge of what the service has informed the court.

The service has acquired many professional skills in dealing with the delicate area of family law in recent years. As my party's spokesperson on law reform, I have been involved with the Minister for Equality and Law Reform in bringing many Bills through this House. I am aware of how sensitive an area this is and how important is the work the service in ensuring the sensitivities of the offenders, especially younger offenders, and that the difficulties experienced by their families are fully and professionally examined. The service assists in every way to ensure that justice and the best result for the family and children is achieved.

We have fallen down in the rehabilitation of prisoners. Recidivism is over 80 per cent, which is an indictment of our prison system. This Minister or the previous Minister are not to blame because this is a major problem which should have been dealt with over the years. All western countries fail in this area, but we should not give up on it. The rehabilitation of prisoners must be a key issue in our prison service and we must place more emphasis on it. The Minister is making more prison spaces available but a further programme should be implemented once this is completed.

Space should be allowed for proper activities in prison which give prisoners the maximum [494] opportunity to be rehabilitated, obtain education and develop skills. I know prisons have different levels of training and education. There is a high level of training opportunities in Limerick Prison, while in places like Mountjoy there is a lower level of such opportunities because of overcrowding. This is a key area in which the probation service must become more involved. It is doing the job as well as it can under present circumstances. Prison should be a place of confinement and punishment, but it should also be a place of rehabilitation. It is vital that young people do not enter universities of crime but universities of hope where they have an opportunity to secure their future and contribute positively to society rather than coming out of prison and destroying the quality of life of their fellow man.

The State and the Government must play a key role in ensuring our prison service is put on a proper basis by providing spaces. However, there should be confinement for those who commit serious crime. They should serve their sentences fully and receive every opportunity for rehabilitation in order to contribute positively to society.

The work done by the probation service in liaising with young offenders and their families is of vital importance. It is vitally important that young offenders in special schools return to families who are aware of their problem and who are sensitive and trained to handle their return. This is necessary to ensure that the offender will have a positive rather than a negative outlook. I agree with Senator Henry that we must endeavour to reduce our reliance on prison as a form of sanction. Prisons should be there for those who commit serious offences but we should continue to expand the use of community service as a sanction. The Probation and Welfare Service must seek to ensure that community service is a proper sanction in the first instance which is properly managed and that people are trained to be good citizens through participating in the service.

The Children Bill which is before the other House at the moment will involve the probation service in much more work. I commend the Minister for extending the service over the past year and a half. We support Senator Henry's view that this service be developed for the reasons which I have outlined.

Mr. Lydon: Information on Don Lydon  Zoom on Don Lydon  I commend the Independent Senators for bringing this motion before us this evening. We are all aware of the tremendous pressure on our courts and prison system. In calling on the Minister to expand the probation service because of the increased needs in the Family Courts and within prisons this motion has a very laudable aim, namely, to keep young offenders out of prison. This is particularly important in the case of young drug offenders. In some areas of Dublin, and indeed in some of our other cities, over 70 per cent of the probation and welfare officers' workload relates to offenders with significant drug misuse problems. The scourge of drugs in our society is horrendous. It is frightening [495] and sickening that so many of our young people are regular drug abusers. This is not caused merely by peer pressure but also by pressure generated by pop culture and by crazy election candidates in some parts of the country who encourage young people——

Mr. Neville: Information on Dan Neville  Zoom on Dan Neville  Candidates such as Senator Mulcahy.

Mr. Lydon: Information on Don Lydon  Zoom on Don Lydon  ——to experiment with drugs. I was thinking of a candidate in the west of Ireland. Many drug abusers slide into a life of petty crime and proceed to more serious crime. Many are convicted of offences such as robbery, burglary, larceny, mugging, handbag snatching and so on as a means of obtaining the money needed to support their habits. I recently met an 18 year old girl who was using £200 worth of heroin a day. When I asked her where she got the money to support her habit, she told me that there was nothing she would not do, except kill, to get it.

Every passing year sees an increase in the difficulties encountered by those who are addicted to drugs. There is a concomitant increase in the burden of work placed on probation and welfare officers. That is one very good reason to expand the service, although in a way it seems to be the wrong reason. We respond to an increase in crime levels with an expanded Probation and Welfare Service. Surely, we should be looking at prevention rather than cure. I am aware that the service emphasises the importance of a community approach to tackling offending behaviour. I am also aware that the service has played a significant role in encouraging local responses to addressing crime. This approach must be encouraged, particularly in the poorer areas of our cities where young people do not get the breaks and in areas of high unemployment. High unemployment levels and consequent social exclusion results in young people not being given a fair chance. Community involvement is needed at a basic level if we are to deal with the social problems associated with criminality. The Probation and Welfare Service addresses many of these social problems but there is a limit to what it can do, given the limited resources available to it.

The service, as we are aware, is essentially concerned with victims. I remind the Minister that there are victims all over the country and not just in one or two of our largest conurbations. Community service orders should be increased; by doing community work young offenders can pay their debt to society in a meaningful way. Incarceration usually produces hardened criminals; young offenders develop bad habits and learn more about crime. Community work helps both the community and the offender. It is a much better alternative to imprisonment, which is essentially a dehumanising experience. Nobody should be imprisoned unless they pose an actual threat to themselves or to the community at large. Bad behaviour is reinforced and, as any good psychologist [496] will tell you, reinforced behaviour will continue and inevitably increase or recur. However, if bad behaviour is ignored and good behaviour — such as community based work — is reinforced, good behaviour will result. Community service gives the offender a chance to prove himself. Not all will succeed, but many will. Some return to bad home situations in poor areas, but it does not fall to the present Minister for Justice to solve all of these problems. There are other Ministries such as Health, Education and Employment which also have a responsibility in this area. I believe the Minister for Justice can make a significant contribution to this problem by agreeing to this motion and by seeking to enhance the Probation and Welfare Service. By doing so, she could make a significant contribution to helping young offenders in this country.

Minister for Justice (Mrs. Owen): Information on Nora Owen  Zoom on Nora Owen  I thought that by outlining the experience of the Probation and Welfare Service for Senators we might have a more helpful debate. I thank Senator Henry and the other Independent Senators who signed the motion and I also thank the Senators who have already contributed to the debate. I have no difficulty whatsoever with the motion. This debate gives us an opportunity to highlight the work of the Probation and Welfare Service in the wider criminal justice system.

There is no doubt in my mind that the Probation and Welfare Service is the unsung hero of the Department of Justice. We do not dwell often enough on the work it does, nor do we give sufficient recognition to its success. 247 people are employed in the Probation and Welfare Service; 181 of these are professional staff and 66 are clerical staff. Senators will recognise the huge value we get from the professionalism of the Probation and Welfare Service and the huge economic value we get from what each individual officer can achieve in preventing the heavy costs associated with imprisonment.

The Probation and Welfare Service provides a service to the courts, the prisons, places of detention and special schools. It operates and supervises the community service scheme and provides alternatives to custody by way of workshops, day centres and hostels for young persons in the community.

It is fair to say that one of the principal tasks of the service is to assist the courts by providing, at their request, detailed background reports on persons appearing before them. These reports can relate to criminal or civil matters. In recent years the service has had to respond to increased demand for court reports, in particular from the higher courts. In excess of 6,000 reports were requested by courts in 1996. The success in reducing the delays in the courts by increasing the number of judges and staff has also had the effect of increasing the demand for reports from the Probation and Welfare Service and prison places. The upside of improving the courts services is [497] that delays have been reduced, but the other services must catch up with those benefits.

I am aware that, because of the demand in the area of criminal law, the service is not as yet in a position to provide a service to the Family Law Courts. The staff of the service are well qualified to carry out this important family law work and have provided a valuable service to the Family Law Courts in the past. This facility was provided at that time on a non-statutory basis and at the request of these courts.

The role of the Probation and Welfare Service in relation to providing court reports in family law cases was, however, put on a statutory footing in August 1996 under the Family Law Act, 1995. A further statutory requirement was placed on the service by the Family Law (Divorce) Act, 1996. Again, the service has been unable to meet its obligations under the Act because of the pressure of existing work. The management of the Probation and Welfare Service is willing to carry out this important family work as soon as staffing resources permit. My Department is currently in consultation with the Department of Finance about the provision of additional staffing for the service, particularly for the civil law cases where the demands of the courts cannot be met at present.

I must recognise that the Probation and Welfare Service is subject to Government restrictions on public sector numbers and requests for additional staffing will have to be considered in the light of this role. I have made a strong case to the Government that the advantage of increasing the resources of the Probation and Welfare Service is huge savings in other areas. I recognise that the growth of the public service is a matter of great concern with regard to the pay bill, but I secured approval last year in the crime package for ten additional Probation and Welfare Service officers. Three of these officers have been hired and the remaining seven are currently being selected by the Civil Service Commission. The interviews have been completed and the panel has been established. The final stage of their appointment is taking place. There are a number of vacancies in the service and it should be possible to fill them from the panel.

As I mentioned earlier, the service provides a welfare service to prisons and places of detention. Approximately 17.5 per cent of the staff of the service is assigned to this work. While prisoner welfare matters, including assisting in making suitable resettlement plans on their release, is a major feature of the service's work in this area, it also plays a major role in the various regimes that operate for those in custody. The service is currently actively involved in the delivery of a special sex offender treatment programme at Arbour Hill as well as in inter-agency programmes for drug users in Mountjoy Prison. Additional staff to meet the demands of additional work arising from the establishment of the two new prisons at the Curragh and Castlerea will, I assure the [498] House, be considered in the context of the staffing requirements which my Department has indicated to the Department of Finance.

The service plays a pivotal role in the special schools which operate under the Department of Education by providing a direct liaison role between the young offender and his or her home while the offender is detained in these special schools. Since becoming Minister for Justice I have become more aware of the importance of the Probation and Welfare Service and how its role could be expanded through the development of more community based sanctions and measures. In this area the principal objective of the service is to reduce reoffending and to provide the use and recognition of community based sanctions. The main sanctions at present are probation orders and community service orders, which have both proved particularly effective.

Since the community service order scheme was set up under the Criminal Justice (Community Service) Act, 1983, the number of court orders has risen from under 800 in 1985 to over 1,600 per annum in recent years. The community service order is a sanction which the courts may use as a direct alternative to imprisonment and was so framed to attempt to restrict the numbers being committed to prison. A number of Senators mentioned the need to restrict the number of committals by using alternatives. Offenders, who must be over 16 years in order to comply with international labour guidelines, carry out a range of work which could not otherwise be done, for example, painting community halls, doing work in centres for the elderly and toy making for the benefit of sick and disadvantaged children. This allows the offender to repay his or her debt to society by carrying out a useful service.

Apart from the obvious benefits to the community, the community service order scheme is also cost effective, with a cost per offender per week of just over £36 as opposed to almost £900 to keep an offender in custody. I am satisfied that the existing scheme works well and that the majority of offenders complete their orders. Offenders can be required to work for between 40 to 240 hours and must complete the task over a 12 month period. I am carefully monitoring this scheme and if it emerges that the scheme could usefully be extended or amended in some way I will do so. There is scope for an extension of the scheme to make it more usable by the courts.

However, a community service order cannot be handed down by the court unless the person who is being sentenced agrees to undertake community service instead of a custodial sentence. It is a voluntary method of sentencing and people cannot be forced to take community service. I have asked the Probation and Welfare Service to ensure that the maximum use is made of the scheme by advising the Judiciary of its benefits. I understand that information seminars on the benefits of the scheme have been recently held for judges. This is most important because a judge ultimately decides in his or her wisdom whether [499] a young offender should be given a chance to stay out of prison by doing community service.

The Probation and Welfare Service is directly and indirectly involved in the provision of workshops, day centres and hostels for young people in the community. These projects are funded by the Probation and Welfare subheads of my Department's Prisons Vote. The amount paid by my Department to these projects in 1996 was almost £3 million. Among the aims of the projects is the reduction of recidivism and the training of young people in a number of skills. One such project is the intensive probation supervision project, known as the Bridge Project in Dublin and INPRO in Cork. These projects cater for about 150 serious offenders who may be referred directly to the projects by the courts. The projects allow young offenders to address their offending behaviour and, at the same time, learn valuable skills, for example, photography, cookery and computer skills which help prepare them for employment.

The projects are managed by independent management committees which are made up of members of the Judiciary, the Garda, the Probation and Welfare Service and members of the business community. I particularly welcome the involvement of the business community. I opened the Bridge Project recently and I met members of the business community, including representatives of banks and other firms in the city. They are gaining a great deal from their involvement in the projects, and not just through providing expertise. They are learning about their city and the type of people who need help. They in turn pass on that message to other businesses not only in terms of assisting the projects but in the context of being more open to employing young people after they have completed the projects. On the opening night all the food was prepared by young offenders who are learning cookery skills. Others, who were looking after coats, were learning social skills attached to dealing with members of the public. It is an extremely valuable project in the inner city.

The projects have been successful in establishing links with employers who are willing to offer employment to offenders and, therefore, offer them a real chance of a life free of crime. It is fine to undergo training but if they meet brick walls when it is finished, they are more likely to be seduced back into a life of crime. If they do not have jobs when they complete the project, they get involved in a cycle of more crime and further dealings with the Probation and Welfare Service until perhaps they commit a serious crime and end up receiving life sentences.

It is generally known that most offenders come from areas of high unemployment and social disadvantage. These people are often further marginalised and excluded from employment because they have a criminal record. It is difficult enough trying to get a job if one has a certain address [500] but it is much tougher if one also has a criminal record.

Another successful project undertaken by the Probation and Welfare Service is the Tower Programme, which is also known as the North Clondalkin Probation Project. In 1996 I approved construction of a new premises for this project in north Clondalkin at a cost of £700,000. The project will cater for up to 36 young offenders where they will learn a range of skills which will prepare them for employment. The new premises is due to be completed in early summer. This is a small price to pay for 36 offenders and significantly cheaper than providing prison places for them.

The service also works in tandem with a number of voluntary groups which provide facilities or services for offenders — for example, the Merchant's Quay project for drug misusers in Dublin and the Aiséiri treatment centre in Cahir. In all the service is involved in over 30 projects.

I am aware of the great need for more probation facilities based in local communities and I regret that lack of provision of such facilities is often not due solely to a lack of resources but to difficulties with local communities accepting such facilities in their areas. The Probation and Welfare Service has gone a long way towards reassuring local communities that their fears are mainly unfounded. I take this opportunity to appeal to public representatives who are aware that a service like this is proposed for a particular area to assist in getting over the fears people may have about such a service and to get message across that without such services they may have more reason to fear. The Probation and Welfare Service is sensitive to the location of these services but they have to be provided in areas adequate for and available and accessible to the people who will use them. There is no point in putting them in an isolated place with no bus service or facilities for training. Of necessity, therefore, they will be based in built-up areas and we have to get the support of the community for them. They are extremely well run with few complaints. The service has established good relations with communities in a number of areas and I assure the House that all locally based facilities are well managed and supervised.

I fully support the view that custodial sentences, particularly for young offenders, should only be used as a last resort. The Children's Bill, 1996, which has now completed Second Stage in the other House, allows the courts a number of community sanctions. These sanctions include powers to impose a day centre order on a child offender. A day centre is a place a child offender will have to attend for up to 90 hours in a six month period and be involved in activities or be given an appropriate occupation while under the supervision of a probation and welfare officer. Activities can also take place outside the day centre.

Day centres can be operated by the Probation and Welfare Service or any other body with the assistance of the probation service. The Bill also [501] provides for various types of probation orders — for example, “a training or activities programme order” as an intensive supervision order. This legislation when enacted will give the Probation and Welfare Service a greater role in the criminal justice system and will bring about an increased use of community sanctions and measures.

One alternative to custody which I have asked my Department to examine is electronic monitoring, an issue raised by Senator Quinn. I have had reports from pilot schemes in Sweden and the UK analysed and I am awaiting further reports. When these are to hand I will consider whether or not there is scope for its introduction in this jurisdiction and whether the probation service would have any role in its implementation if it were introduced. The service is well stretched by what it is doing at present and I do not want to add further responsibilities until I am sure I can get the necessary staffing. The danger is of embarking upon something which is not done as well as it could be and therefore considered not to be working. If we introduce electronic tagging it must be allowed work through provision of the necessary back-up services. There is no point in putting a tag on somebody and allowing them wander where they want. The tag has to be monitored. Some Members will be aware of how tags work. It is necessary to have a telephone in the house where the person is living in order to monitor them correctly. It is not a case of clipping the tag onto the person's arm or ankle. Back-up services are necessary.

It is becoming increasingly clear to many people that prison is not always the most appropriate sanction; and while there will always be offenders for whom custodial sanctions are essential, there are many for whom community sanctions are at least as effective. As well as this, as I mentioned earlier in the case of community service, community sanctions are much less expensive. There have been a number of calls for greater use of community sanctions and the expansion of the role of the Probation and Welfare Service over the years. In 1985 the Whitaker report recommended the strengthening of probation service resources. As Senator Henry mentioned, in recent years my Department's policy document, The Management of Offenders — A Five Year Plan, published in 1994, referred to expanding the service's role in relation to the supervision of offenders on early release and the provision of a formalised aftercare service for offenders on release from custody. In the Government's anti-crime package which was approved last year I was pleased to secure ten additional probation staff posts plus two clerical posts for the service to assist in the supervision of up to 100 offenders on early release.

It is now generally accepted among those in the penal field that probation and other community sanctions and measures can be an effective alternative to custody and there is plenty of scope for further developments in this field. I accept that the Probation and Welfare Service is at present [502] overburdened and the development of new measures is often hindered by lack of resources. I strongly endorse the view that the Probation and Welfare Service should be expanded and I accept that there is a need for additional resources. I strongly urge that additional resources be targeted to the Probation and Welfare Service in the future to enable it expand its role in the criminal justice system in an effective manner. I have pressed and will continue to press for additional resources for the service.

When I became Minister for Justice there was so much to be done that I had to prioritise much of the work. Clearly, one of the major gaps in the system was the provision of prison places for people sentenced for serious crimes. However, that does not mean that I ignored or neglected other elements in my Department. We are working towards expanding the service with the additional ten staff. I will ensure, and I hope future Ministers will ensure, that the Probation and Welfare Service is properly resourced.

I know Members will join with me in complimenting the service for what they do with a small number of professional staff. We do not often get a chance to praise the service and we should take this opportunity to commend it.

Mr. Farrell: Information on Willie Farrell  Zoom on Willie Farrell  I welcome the Minister to the House. She is doing her utmost to sort out the problem. It is discouraging that the more she and previous Ministers have done, the worse the problem seems to become. A previous Government introduced free education and it was said that it would result in everybody being educated and an end to many problems. However, the more we do, the more problems we seem to have. I accept that our biggest problems today are drugs and drug related. I do not know what the answer to the problem is. The probation service is part of the answer. It is one way of getting people to realise that they should not be doing what they are. However, I sometimes think we should be addressing the problem from a younger age. Children of five and six in this city are setting out on the road to criminality. The Garda knows this. By the ages of 14 or 15 they are almost beyond redemption.

Many things done in this country over the years were undertaken on the advice of professionals who examined everything from an economic point of view. However, what seems cheapest at the time may not be the cheapest in the long run. The closure of small schools in towns, cities and rural areas and the opening of big schools, resulting in an impersonal atmosphere, accounts for some of the problems.

Despite all the laws, I see children as young as five or six years on the streets at 11 and 12 o'clock at night. Why are these children not being supervised? This is where the problem starts. Prison is no place for children and it makes no sense to send them there because, as a previous speaker said, it is a university where they graduate to further crime. When [503] they meet other prisoners that is all they talk about. Community service should be extended to take youngsters who commit offences out of the criminal environment for a period.

The parents of most of these children are not playing their proper role, because they are disadvantaged themselves. By and large, we imitate the home environment where we grew up — what we learn when we are young stays with us all our lives. If children see only crime, what can we expect them to do? If we are to improve matters, we must take children out of that environment, hard as that may seem, and place them elsewhere until they reach an age when they will realise their home is not the best place for them.

We are not providing sufficiently for special schools. Our best schools were the technical schools where young people were able to learn trades, but we got rid of them and set up community colleges. While that education is good for the vast majority, children who were good with their hands were better off in small technical schools and we should bring them back.

Sometimes the media is inclined to make celebrities out of young criminals. Recently a chat show allowed a 14 year old to explain how he could break into any car in less than 20 seconds, hot-wire it and drive away. That was wrong because it encourages other youngsters to do likewise. Those who produce programmes may think that is good but I do not agree — it gives young criminals an opportunity to flaunt the wrong sort of knowledge. Many young people involved in crime may not be educated in the modern sense of the word but they are highly intelligent. I worked in the motor trade for many years but I would not be able to hot-wire a car in an hour. It was easier to hot-wire old cars, which had coils and a distributor cap, but much harder to hot-wire cars with electronic ignition. Children who can break into cars at that young age have brains to burn and we should put them into schools so they can use that ability to gain work.

The Minister said we can keep young people on projects for £36 per week as against a cost of £900 per week per prison place. Those schemes are the answer and we should have more of them. We do not know the success rate of those projects as yet but it must be quite good. Our probation service should do more work in that area.

I do not know how we will solve the drug problem. If young people are off the streets and taking part in those projects or community work, they would not have the time for drugs. Community work should not be voluntary. People should have to work at least five days a week and start at 8 a.m. I have said many times in this House that the money we put into social welfare, FÁS and voluntary schemes should be put into compulsory schemes and young people should work from 8 a.m. until about 6 p.m. It does not matter if they only swept rubbish from one spot to another —“they also serve who only stand and [504] wait” and if they worked all day they would not commit vandalism or create problems at 4 a.m.

The Minister mentioned electronic tagging and she should pursue that issue. The work of the gardaí would be much easier if there was a way to track people when they were outside the proper area or were not where they should be at a specific time. I encourage the Minister to do more research in that area. These people have a problem and we must ensure they realise they are constrained from entering a part of the city where they are not known. We must be cruel to be kind. We should spend more money on these projects. These children start misbehaving at age five or six but by the time they are 14 they are young criminals. We should work on them during their tender years because that is when one can control and encourage them. I congratulate the Minister on her work and hope she will accept the motion.

Ms Gallagher: Information on Ann Gallagher  Zoom on Ann Gallagher  I hope the Independent Senators will permit me to speak about crime prevention as opposed to the probation service, because that is where we should direct our attention. Youth diversion strategies are required and they should be targeted at disadvantaged communities, specifically at young males in those communities, if crime is to be prevented in the long term. The aim should be to keep young people within the education system for as long as possible by making that system more responsive to their needs and providing alternatives to traditional education services. I also welcome the moves in the Children Bill towards greater parental responsibility, as mentioned by the Minister, because that is necessary if we are to steer potential offenders away from crime and drugs. I do not often agree with Senator Farrell but I agree that parents have a role to play.

The Labour Party policy document on crime advocates community based support for families in disadvantaged areas, especially targeted at parents with low educational achievements. It also advocates community based, high quality preschool facilities to nip crime in the bud and give children an opportunity to achieve something rather than be doomed to a life of crime. I also favour the expansion of the “Early Start” programme and the home-school liaison service, which are vital if we are to ensure crime is prevented in the long term. We must revamp the school attendance service to make it more like an educational welfare service which would provide not only tracing of children playing truant but a counselling and support service for children who persistently avoid school.

I am pleased we have moved on from the all too familiar debate on prison places. While Labour is not opposed to providing more places, we are weary of the argument that it is the panacea for all our problems. We have to be realistic. Prison is a place where we can put offenders. It is a twofold response in that it punishes the offender and keeps dangerous civilians out of society. However, it has not succeeded in terms of [505] rehabilitation. The argument is made that many offenders imprisoned for petty crimes learn their craft to a greater degree inside prison. We must look at other ways to prevent crime and ensure that in the long-term some sort of rehabilitation is provided to allow at least some of these people return to a normal life. That should be one of our aims in tackling crime.

We should look again at the choice between imprisonment and the payment of fines for crimes. It is wrong that a person may opt to avoid a large fine by spending a short period of time in prison while others are sent to prison for their inability to pay a relatively small fine. That system should be made fairer, perhaps by expanding the attachment of earnings system which currently applies in family law to fines for more general crimes.

In 1969 the Governor of Massachusetts appointed a commissioner to deal specifically with young offenders. The commissioner's approach was radical in that he basically stopped all custodial sentences for young offenders except those convicted of murder or rape. In all other cases an intensive non-custodial regime was initiated. Child offenders who had received a sentence were taken off their sentences and put on an intensive rehabilitation programme which was designed especially for them. When necessary those programmes could involve direct action within the young person's home and family, which sometimes included sending them on special training or education programmes away from their home background.

The programme aimed at teaching those young people how to be responsible members of society, how to work effectively with others as a team, how to accept responsibility and how to respect valid authority. From my brief examination of that system, it seemed to work. Juvenile recidivism in Massachusetts decreased dramatically in the years following the implementation of that programme.

I know that system had to be specially adapted and targeted and that it cost money. However, it proved to be very successful in the long-term. While we in Government may be faulted for operating with an annual budget, which the political system makes necessary, and Ministers wanting to operate their own policies rather than looking to the long term, we should remember that certain aims in society are of necessity long term. This is one of them and it would be money well spent to adopt such a strategy to deal with young offenders.

From looking at the statistics which the Minister provided for the Probation and Welfare Service, it is quite clear we are getting very good value for money. The staff totals 247 people with a budget for 1997 totalling £12.5 million. They provide reports to the courts and thus assist the judge in determining sentencing, they have community based supervision of offenders, they have a welfare service for the prisons and they provide counselling programmes for offenders and their [506] families. The service is also involved with a number of workshops and day centres. If we are to properly value their work and their efforts in rehabilitating young offenders and giving offenders an option to prison, we must support them, not with lip service but with financial backup and other services.

When the Family Law Bill and the divorce legislation are introduced, that will place an extra responsibility on the Probation and Welfare Service. We also have two new prisons in Castlerea and the Curragh which will put a greater strain on the workload of the service. They deserve our support. The Independent Members have done us a service by tabling this motion. I know the Minister has enlisted all her resources in this area and has given her support to the motion. It is something on which we can all agree to work for the future.

Mr. Sherlock: Information on Joe Sherlock  Zoom on Joe Sherlock  As was stated by previous speakers, the importance of the motion is that it has focused attention on this matter. The Minister's response, as was pointed out by Senator Gallagher, is very positive. We hope that will continue.

The recent debate on crime has focused on quick fix solutions which make good headlines but do little to address the underlying problem. Unfortunately, there are few reliable statistics available in the criminal justice system. That is why Democratic Left has long argued for the establishment of a criminalogical statistics unit within the Central Statistics Office. We do, however, have sufficient information to draw some conclusions about the people in our prisons.

We know they are likely to be young. One third of Irish prisoners are aged under 21 years, in comparison with the EU average of one in ten. A large proportion left school early without any qualifications, which is a terrible indictment of our education system. According to all available evidence, one in two prisoners will reoffend following their release. There are some crimes, particularly crimes of violence, for which custodial sentences are the only realistic option. However, we need to start examining the non-custodial alternatives which are geared towards rehabilitation rather than simple containment. We also need to ensure that those offenders who are sent to prison have access to a full range of rehabilitation services, ranging from counselling and drug treatment programmes to adult literacy and vocational training programmes.

The motion refers primarily to young offenders. The Government's juvenile justice legislation has a number of innovative provisions, including a statutory diversion programme and other early intervention measures. These need to be consolidated and expanded. We also need to look at those young offenders who do not come under the scope of juvenile justice legislation — the 18 to 21 year old males who are currently clogging our prisons. Further development and expansion of the Probation and Welfare Service is vital if we are to make increased use of non-custodial [507] sentences, such as community service orders. We need to develop a new and innovative approach to ensure that offenders' first contact with the criminal justice system is their last.

Mr. Lanigan: Information on Mick Lanigan  Zoom on Mick Lanigan  This motion demands recognition. It specifically refers to “the increased needs in the family courts and within the prisons” and the need “to use the probation service to the utmost effect to keep young offenders out of prison”.

The prison system of every country has failed. The Minister pointed out that a huge number of prisoners return to prison after their release. The system propagates itself. In the same way that certain hospital patients become hospitalised, some prisoners become accustomed to the prison regime and are unable to deal with the outside world. They sometimes contrive to return to prison.

At one time in Australia if one's grandfather or great grandfather had not served a term in prison in Australia, one was deemed not to be Australian. The horrific situation of the women of Botany Bay and the horrors that prisoners endured in the colonies never did anything except make them realise that they never wanted to go to prison again.

Has even one person been rehabilitated into society in Ireland after a spell in prison? If so, I would praise the prison system. In certain circumstances people are moved from one prison to another. They may end up in Shelton Abbey, one of the best hotels in Ireland, where every facility is available to inmates. They are there for debt problems, not because they have committed crimes. Similarly young children from Dublin's inner city are moved to the open prison at Blacklion, County Cavan, where their families are unable to visit them. Much of the drug problem in Cork has been curbed following the installation of nets over the walls to prevent the hurling of balls which contain drugs into the prison.

Use of the probation service for its intended purpose would involve an expansion of the juvenile liaison officer schemes in every county. Such officers are aware of potential trouble makers and of the problems associated with their families. An expansion of the service may facilitate their dealing with them.

The courts are indiscriminate because they tend to apply sentences appropriate to the cases before them. However, this criterion is not person, family or community oriented. This means that people from parts of Cork, Limerick, Dublin and Kilkenny will get harder sentences than those from other areas. Although judges must have eight years experience as a lawyer and have often belonged to political parties, this does not give them the experience or the right to deal with the people who come before them. There should be an alternative to the legal system as presently constituted, an alternative where there are stringent limitations on what judges can and cannot do.

[508] If a probation system is to work it must do so from both inside and outside the legal system. It must also be organised on a family and community basis. The system works best when those working within it belong to the same community as those it serves. They must be able to judge what happens within the community and must keep young offenders out of prison, which is a university for crime. How many people go into Irish prisons drug free and come out drug addicts? The community service orders should be expanded and everybody should know that a person given such an order has been through a process.

Listening to the radio earlier this week, I was disgusted to hear a priest in the prison service complain about the transfer of a prisoner from Cork to Arbour Hill. However, he forgot to mention that the prisoner was a Christian Brother, and while he was frail man of 82 years he was a paedophile convict. Perhaps he should not be in prison, but the priest did no service to the Church, the prison service and the legal process. I hope he will reflect on the damage that was inflicted by the prisoner on others.

The probation service must be expanded. We should, if possible, keep people out of prison, whether young or old. All prisons do is contain people. Having been contained, those people emerge to commit a crime after two or three days and return to prison. We should agree on this motion, because there are huge problems to be addressed by the Minister for Justice and the Minister for Social Welfare. There should be a Minister dealing with those who have committed offences to find out how we can keep them in a system that has not worked in the past. I see no advantage in putting people in prisons because they have not worked in any civilised society. I agree with the motion, though it may be going nowhere, and the probation service should be used to the fullest.

Dr. Henry: Information on Mary E.F. Henry  Zoom on Mary E.F. Henry  I am greatly heartened not only by the Minister's response to the motion but even more by the contributions from Senators. I had begun to think that any debate on crime had to involve the provision of more prison places. If one looked at media reports from recent years, most Oireachtas debates consisted of urging the Minister for Justice to open more prisons. Accordingly, I was heartened to hear such varied views from fellow Senators.

Senator Neville spoke of the 80 per cent recidivism rate among prisoners. If one was running any business and there was an 80 per cent failure rate, one would have to ask if something was wrong with that organisation. Questioning this rate of recidivism is a start and an acknowledgement that this issue must be seen from another point of view.

I noted Senator Lydon's contribution, because he is a psychologist. He stressed the importance of reinforcing good behaviour rather than punishing bad behaviour as being psychologically important. Senator Lanigan referred to this when [509] saying that the failure rate of people going to prison is very high. Even if prisons are made tougher and less like hotels in County Wicklow, only those of very strong character like the saints are improved by suffering. Suffering makes most of us more bitter and does us little good, as we tend to be more enthusiastic about behaving badly.

It was interesting to hear Senators Farrell and Gallagher agree so much on the need for early intervention to prevent crime by dealing with children. I support their calls for an improvement in schooling in deprived areas and for liaison between homes and schools. Intensive assistance should be given to dysfunctional families who require it. Senator Sherlock was enthusiastic about diversionary tactics and that we should try to divert people from becoming so involved with crime that prison becomes inevitable.

Senator Quinn raised the issue of electronic tagging, which he sees as very important in reducing the number of people who go to prison. All Members would agree that people tend to come out of prisons worse than they were going in. The Minister is looking into this, although sometimes these schemes can be mocked. It was discovered that one prisoner put his tag on his dog and left the dog at home. However, one swallow does not make a summer. We can examine what happened with the other prisoners, who may not have had dogs to put the tags on.

I accept the Minister's point on resistance to local services. All of us are familiar with the cry of “Not in my backyard.” People are enthusiastic about having services set up that may prevent crime so long as those services are not set up near them. I am fortunate in that the first drug unit was set up almost next door to me. When people complain to me that a unit should not be set up in their area, I can say that I have one 20 metres down the road and take the wind out of their sails. It is important that each community tackles the problems. As Senator Lanigan said, there is no point in shipping people miles away from where they live and hope their families stay in contact with them. I thank the Minister for her reply and Senators for their constructive attempts to look for alternatives to custodial sentences within this jurisdiction.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended at 7.35 p.m. and resumed at 8 p.m.


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