Check Against Delivery

17 September, 2014

Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen.

I am delighted to be here today to launch the Final Report of the Penal Policy Review Group. I would like to thank the Chairman, Mr. Michael Whelan, and the members of the Group for all of their hard work in bringing this report to fruition - their efforts are very much appreciated as, indeed, are the contributions of so many who met with and made submissions to the Group.

Many of you will know that the Review Group was established in 2012, in line with the recommendations of the Thornton Hall Project Review Group, to conduct a wide-ranging strategic review of penal policy taking into account the relevant work already carried out in this jurisdiction and elsewhere, the rights of those convicted of crimes, the perspective of those who are victims of crime and the interests of society in general.

It is clear that the Group adopted a progressive but pragmatic approach and their recommendations will make a positive contribution to a more progressive penal policy in Ireland.

I broadly welcome this report and its 43 recommendations.

Future Penal Policy
I believe the time is right in Ireland, for the development of a new approach to penal policy; and this review will shape that evolution.

As Minister for Justice, I believe our future penal policy must be focussed on two key goals - punishment and prevention:
· The societal need for punishment to be served must be met;
· But the proven potential to reduce crime through reducing re-offending must also be grasped.

The Review Group provide their own statements on these two goals, stating:
· Firstly, while imprisonment should be regarded as a sanction of last resort, nonetheless “in line with the principle of proportionality, there are offences for which imprisonment may be the only appropriate sentence”; and
· Secondly that: “the overarching purpose of criminal and penal policy should be to make Ireland a safer and fairer place” and “that any penal system which does not aspire to a reduction in offending behaviour as a key goal is failing in its purpose.“

The Review Group goes on to identify “rehabilitation and reintegration as a core principle and significant factor in reducing crime and considers that such aims are best achieved in a non-custodial environment as far as possible.”

What this also means is that while prisons will remain part of the answer, prison will not be the only answer.

I feel strongly that we need to move on from the Victorian-era penal approach to punishing prisoners with a set prison sentence. Similarly we need to move away from, what has seen as a ‘revolving door’ of prisoners going in and out of prison.

Revolving door policies don’t work and simply locking up offenders doesn’t work either. They don’t work for the persons involved, and they don’t work for society.

But let me be clear, I am determined that serious offenders and serial offenders must continue to be imprisoned. Public safety is of paramount importance and I am absolute about this. Society expects and demands nothing less.

But I am also clear in my view that prison is not the only solution when it comes to those convicted of lesser, non violent offences.

Why should we send such persons to prison, at a high cost to the taxpayer, into a prison environment where, despite all the improvements in recent years, for some, their underlying offending behaviour, not to mention any addiction or mental health problems, may be exacerbated rather than eliminated?

When, alternatively, we can tackle re-offending head on by imposing a supervised community sanction, with appropriate supports, which could see punishment being served, but which would also lead, not only to rehabilitation, but to a reduced risk of reoffending.

Recidivism Studies by Central Statistics Office (CSO) have shown that offenders who received either a Probation Order or a Community Service Order in 2007 and 2008 had a re-offending rate nearly 50% lower than those who had received a custodial sentence (41% vs 62%).

This shows that supervised community sanctions can help in reduce reoffending, thereby reducing crime.

Let me repeat. Balancing the dual imperatives of punishment and prevention must be at heart of future Irish Penal Policy.

And already, we have started…

Prison Reform to date
Since this Government came into power we have achieved much progress in pursuing alternatives to custody and providing a range of non-custodial options for the judiciary to use. As a result, even in advance of publication of this report, prisoner numbers are reducing from all time highs and we are travelling a route where some of the recommendations are already being implemented.

Legislation has already been passed including the Criminal Justice (Community Service) (Amendment) Act 2011 which requires the sentencing judge to consider the imposition of community service where a custodial sentence of 12 months or less is being considered.

The Fines (Payment and Recovery) Act 2014 was signed into law by the President on 16th April 2014. This Act provides an appropriate response to the joint problems of the refusal or failure of some people to pay fines and the inappropriateness of imposing imprisonment as an automatic response where this happens. Work is continuing to progress the implementation of the Act which I expect will lead to a reduction in the number of committals to prison on short sentences.

I have consistently championed the need for interagency working. Therefore I welcome the initiative of the Irish Prison Service and Probation Service in jointly publishing:
· Firstly, a Joint Strategic Plan in May 2013 which sets out their strategic objectives to develop a multi-agency approach to offender management and rehabilitation, from pre to post imprisonment, in order to reduce reoffending and improve prison outcomes; and
· Secondly, a Joint Women's Strategy 2014 – 2016 which sets out how the two agencies will provide tailored interventions for women with the aim to reduce offending among women and improve outcomes.

I commend the efforts of both agencies in implementing these plans, much of which I know is supported by the recommendations of the Penal Policy Review.

Community Return Programme
Another joint development is the continued roll out of the Community Return Programme. This is a scheme where carefully selected prisoners can be granted reviewable temporary release coupled with a requirement to do community service work such as painting, gardening or graffiti removal in a supervised group setting. A prisoner who does not comply with the conditions of his or her release is returned to prison to serve the remainder of his or her sentence and is not eligible to be considered again for participation in the scheme.

The scheme represents a move away from releasing prisoners in an unstructured way. This is relevant in the context of the Review Group’s conclusion that “a particularly important factor in the successful reintegration of offenders, including desisting from crime, is the level of support available on release from prison. A system of unprepared and unassisted release of a prisoner into the community is inconsistent with the principles of rehabilitation and reintegration identified by the Review Group as central principles of penal policy.”

There have, to date, been 1,045 participants on the scheme with 116 offenders currently engaged in community service work. In 2013 the target of 300 participants was exceeded and it is intended to increase the target number of participants in 2014 to 450.

The scheme is delivering real and tangible benefits to the State in term of savings in prison spaces and a move away from releasing prisoners in an unstructured manner. I am also pleased to note that the reports to date from the Community Site Supervisors have been very positive and many of the participants have been commended for their work ethic, punctuality and commitment.

Responding to the Recommendations
This progress to date provides a solid platform from which to proceed with future reforms, informed by the 43 recommendations of the Penal Policy Review.

Community Sanctions
It is my intention to proceed with the Criminal Justice (Community Sanctions) Bill which will strengthen the legislative framework for supervised community sanctions.

The subject of mandatory sentences arises for consideration in any debate on the appropriate use of imprisonment. The Penal Policy Review recommends that no further mandatory sentences or presumptive minimum sentences should be introduced.
I have asked my officials to prepare proposals and options on reform of sentencing policy, including mandatory minimum sentences. I will bring these proposals to Government shortly. I should point out that my preference is to maintain the minimum mandatory life sentence for murder.
In addition, the Minister has asked her officials to prepare proposals for Government on legislating for the review’s recommendation relating to Courts being required to set out in writing their reasons for imposing a custodial sentence.

On the matter of remission, while it is not my intention to increase automatic remission above 25% (as proposed by the Oireachtas Sub-Committee on Penal Reform), I have asked my Department to prepare more detailed proposals or options on the possible increased use of earned remission.

Open prison for women
The Penal Policy Review calls for the establishment of an open centre for women as well as gender appropriate strategies for the management of women offenders. I wish to confirm that The Irish Prison Service has established a sub-group to examine where such a facility might be provided within the prison estate. Once the subgroup has reported, I intend to ask the Prison Service to bring forward further feasibility proposals on developing such an open centre for women prisoners.

Victim Issues
I am particularly pleased that the discussions of the Review Group included the role of victims in the criminal justice system and the extent to which they feel involved in the process. They recommend that the role of the victim in the criminal justice system should be fully acknowledged and I agree wholeheartedly. As Minister, I am committed to strengthening support for the victims of crime; and I am particularly conscious of the role of victims and I am pleased to see representatives of victim groups here today.

I wish to reiterate my commitment to strengthening supports for victims of crime and I am determined that the EU Directive on Victims’ Rights will be implemented in Ireland in 2015.

Parole Board
As I said last week at the launch of the Parole Board Annual Report for 2013, I intend to bring forward proposals to Government for new legislation to strengthen the position and role of the Parole Board. Having regard to the Penal Policy Review’s recommendations, this proposed legislation will place the Parole Board on an independent statutory footing. This I believe will help to strengthen the Board and improve its functions.

Further to my previous points on victims I intend to explore the issue of victim representation on the Parole Board in the context of placing the Board on a statutory footing.

Youth Diversion
As a former Minister for Children & Youth Affairs, I am particularly committed in diverting young offenders from prosecution. This must remain a policy priority, particularly when you consider the young bulge in the prison population. At the end of June 2014, over 20% of those imprisoned were aged under 25, with over 40% aged under 30 in total.

I am therefore happy to support the recommendation of the Review Group that the question of extending the diversion approach to 18-21 years olds be examined by all the agencies involved; and I will be discussing this matter further with my colleague Minister James Reilly.

Standard of accommodation
The Penal Policy Review calls for the standard of accommodation in Limerick and Portlaoise Prisons to be improved. The Irish Prison Service is working to provide in-cell sanitation in all cells and radically improve prison conditions in the older parts of the prison estate. Real improvements are being made with plans for the construction of a new wing in Limerick Prison and refurbishment works in Portlaoise Prison.

Community Courts
The Review Group includes a recommendation on Community Courts. The Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality has recently also issued a report examining the feasibility of establishing a Community Court in Ireland. The report provides a starting point to consider whether the Community Court model can be of benefit to the Irish criminal justice system. I have already stated that a considerable amount of preparatory work needs to be undertaken in collaboration with all stakeholders before a pilot project can be established. When the matter has been fully examined, I intend to bring forward proposals on the establishment of a Community Court in Dublin city on a pilot basis.

Review of alcohol and drugs services
Again, I commented last week on how I was struck by the statistics which highlight how drink and drugs influence criminal offending. Drink and drugs played a part in offences committed in over half of the cases reviewed by the Parole Board from 2011 to 2013. This highlights the devastating impact on our communities of the misuse and abuse of alcohol and drugs. I am determined to work with the Agencies under my remit to address the issues involved. It is my intention that a review of alcohol and drugs services for offenders be undertaken as soon as possible.

The report envisages progress on implementation of the recommendations to be published every six months, and I will be giving some consideration to how that can best be done in the next few weeks.

Penal Policy Reform Conference
Finally, I should mention that my Department, the Irish Prison Service, the Probation Service and the Association for Criminal Justice Research & Development (ACJRD) will hold the Inaugural Irish Criminal Justice Conference on Saturday (20th September) in Wheatfield Place of Detention.

I believe the conference is very timely as its theme is Penal Policy Reform; and I wish it every success.

Concluding Comments
So let me conclude by thanking you for your attention. I want to finish by again thanking the Group, its Chairman, Mr Michael Whelan, and members for the important contribution they have made to the debate on penal reform. This report will make a real difference and I am determined to ensure this will be so.

Thank you.