252. Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Justice and Equality the reason the number of persons participating on the community return programme has declined since 2014; his plans to carry out an independent evaluation of the programme; and if the criteria will be reviewed with a view to extending access to the programme. [25250/19]


Minister for Justice and Equality (Deputy Charles Flanagan): I can advise the Deputy that the Community Return programme is a joint Irish Prison Service and Probation Service initiative where carefully selected prisoners are approved reviewable temporary release conditional on them performing unpaid community work. The participants must be serving sentences of between 1 and 8 years.
Prisoners can be considered for placement on the scheme once they have half of their sentence complete and once they have demonstrated good behaviour and a commitment to engage with therapeutic services while in custody. The Community work takes place on projects such as the homeless services, local schools, community projects, youth and sports clubs, graffiti projects and other charitable organisations.

Community Return Statistics

2011 66
2012 299
2013 396
2014 455
2015 323
2016 301
2017 193
2018 218
Total 2251

While the numbers on Community Return have dropped from their high in 2014, the compliance rate of almost 90% has remained the same. This demonstrates the robustness of the assessment process which involves a number of steps and takes into account a wide range of issues such as safety to the public, risk of re-offending, nature of the offence and other pertinent issues.
The Joint Strategy Steering Committee, which consists of senior officials from the Irish Prison Service and the Probation Service, are responsible for the monitoring of progress and tracking emerging trends in initiatives such as Community Return. In 2018 they examined reasons for the fall in numbers on Community Return and found that regular prison review meetings to examine eligible cases have continued to take place as appropriate.
The analysis found that an increasing number of prisoners were not suitable for early release as they represented an unacceptable risk for reasons including links to feuding gangs or that they had not demonstrated a genuine willingness to change their offending behaviour as they had not engaged effectively with the services available to them. It was also noted that an increasing numbers of prisoners had no stable address to return to. The Joint Strategy Steering Committee continue to monitor these issues.
I can further advise the Deputy that in 2014 the Evaluation Report, "Community Return - A Unique Opportunity" found that the Scheme provides a real and beneficial return to communities across the country. It provided a means whereby offenders can return to their own communities and begin the process of resettlement with a focus and a pride that they can make a positive contribution there. I have no plans at present to commission a further independent evaluation of the scheme.
I can confirm to the Deputy that my Department has received recommendations from the Joint Strategy Steering Committee in relation to revised practices around Community Return and I expect to be in a position to make an announcement in the coming weeks.