Check against Delivery
6 March 2015
On behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality I would like to thank you for this opportunity to continue the discussion on penal reform.
I would like to commend Deputy David Stanton and the Joint Committee for their report which was published in March 2013 and which recommends a range of measures designed to further the development of an effective and progressive penal system.
The report recommends the following:
· Reduce prison numbers;
· Commute prison sentences of less than six months;
· Increase standard remission from one quarter to one third and introduce an incentivised remission scheme of up to one half;
· Introduce legislation providing for structured release, temporary release, parole and community return; and
· Address prison conditions and overcrowding and increase the use of open prisons.
Minister Fitzgerald believes the Committee’s report complements the more recent report of the Penal Policy Review Group, which she published last September.
The Review Group was asked to make recommendations on how a principled and sustainable penal system might be further enhanced taking into account resource implications, Constitutional imperatives and our international obligations. They were also asked to consider the recommendations contained in the Committee’s report.
There are common themes in both reports such as reducing prisoner numbers, improving prison conditions, increased use of open prisons and placing the Parole Board on a statutory basis. Both reports acknowledge the considerable progress made in recent years but that there remains more to be done. Naturally, there are differences in detail between both reports which can be explored as part of the ongoing process of implementation.
The Committee called for prisoner numbers to be reduced. I would make the point that prison numbers have since been reducing. 2013 saw the first significant decrease in prison numbers since 2007. In 2013 there were 15,735 committals to prison - a decrease of 7.6 % on the 2012 total of 17,026.
On 3rd March 2015 the prisoner population stood at 3,768. This was 95% of the Inspector of Prisons recommended total of 3,982. By comparison on 3rd March 2014 the prisoner population stood at 4,045. This was 98% of the Inspector’s recommended total of 4,124.
All this points to a reducing trend in prisoner numbers indicative of the progress being made by this Government to reduce the prisoner population and pursue alternatives to custody.
Minister Fitzgerald’s view is that a specific target for reducing prison numbers should not be set as ultimately there are many factors which must be taken into account, including the rate of crime, public safety and the independence of courts in making sentencing decisions. Sanctions must be appropriate to each offender, and not be restricted by a policy which purely seeks to reduce the numbers in prison.
The Committee recommended that sentences imposed for imprisonment for under six months be commuted and replaced with community service orders for all non violent offences. It cited the experience in Finland where a court may commute a sentence of less than 8 months to community work.
In fact, the Criminal Justice (Community Service) (Amendment) Act 2011 goes further than this, in that it positively obliges a court to consider community service in any case where there might be a sentence of up to one year.
The Committee also recommended that standard remission be raised to one third for all sentences over one month, and that enhanced remission of up to one half be made available for certain categories of prisoners who engaged with services within prison.
This was considered by the Review Group who on balance came down in favour of retention of the current system of remission, which has a standard rate of one-quarter.
The Committee recommended that there be a single piece of legislation to provide for various forms of structured release and the recommended changes to the rates of remission. I can say that, in principle, Minister Fitzgerald will certainly consider the potential for consolidation of legislation in such matters.
Finally, the Committee recommended that prison conditions be improved and the amount of open prisons increased. I think you will agree that major improvements have been made in prison conditions in recent years. Overcrowding has been eliminated in Mountjoy Prison and priority given to reducing overcrowding in Cork, Limerick and the Dóchas Centre.
It is intended to reduce the capacity of our prisons to align with the Inspector of Prisons recommended capacity of 3,982 in so far as this is compatible with public safety and the integrity of the criminal justice system.
Mountjoy Prison has been transformed, almost beyond recognition. A new Cork Prison is under construction and is on target to be completed later this year. The Business Case for the redevelopment of Limerick prison including the provision of a stand alone women’s prison there has been approved by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. Options continue to be explored regarding improved accommodation for prisoners currently housed in the E Block of Portlaoise Prison.
The Irish Prison Service and Probation Service Joint Women's Strategy commits the Prison Service to exploring the development of an open centre for women prisoners. A subgroup was established to examine where such a facility might be provided within the prison estate. I understand that the subgroup recently submitted their report to the Director General of the Prison Service for his consideration of various options.
Moving now to the Report of the Review Group which contains 43 recommendations, some of which can be implemented in the short to medium term, while others require a more long term approach. Last November Minister Fitzgerald obtained the agreement, in principle, of Government to proceed with the implementation of the following recommendations:
· Bringing forward legislative proposals to establish the Parole Board on an independent statutory basis;
· Preparing proposals and options for Government on reform of sentencing policy including a review of the threshold at which presumptive minimum sentences in drugs and other offences apply;
· Preparing proposals for Government on legislating for the review’s recommendation that Courts set out in writing their reasons for imposing a custodial sentence;
· Preparing proposals on the potential for increased use of earned remission; and
· Pursuing options for an open prison for female offenders.
Work is underway to progress the implementation of these decisions.
Following its consideration by Government, Minister Fitzgerald referred the report to the Joint Committee who broadly welcomed many aspects of the report. While they expressed disappointment that the review did not include their recommendation on increasing standard remission, I understand they did accept that this could lead to altering or increasing relevant sentences of imprisonment.
Minister Fitzgerald notes the Committee’s call for her Department to increase its capacity for research and optimise data collection - this is an area currently being looked at.
In their reply the Committee also referred to its Report on the use and effectiveness of Community courts and the recommendation that a trial Community Court be established in Dublin city to deal with summary and petty offences. The Review Group also make a recommendation on Community Courts.
The Committee report provides a starting point to consider whether the Community Court model can be of benefit to the Irish criminal justice system. Minister Fitzgerald has 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, she intends to bring forward proposals on the establishment of a Community Court in Dublin city on a pilot basis.
The Review Group recommended that a group be established which would report every six months to the Minister for Justice and Equality on the implementation of the report. Minister Fitzgerald recently announced the establishment of a Penal Policy Implementation Oversight Group chaired by Dr. Mary Rogan, Head of Law at Dublin Institute of Technology. Dr. Rogan was a member of the review group and as such has a deep knowledge of the issues addressed in the report. Officials from the Department of Justice and Equality will meet with Dr. Rogan shortly to discuss the Group’s membership and the mechanics of its operation.
Separately the Department has set up an internal cross divisional Working Group to co-ordinate and take forward the implementation of the report’s recommendations.
To conclude, much progress has already been made in terms of some of the recommendations of both reports and the progress to date provides us with a firm base from which to proceed with future reform.
Both Reports are important contributions to the debate on penal reform. They provide us with a road map for the future and will be an invaluable source of advice to Minister Fitzgerald, the Government and everyone interested in making progressive and effective changes to penal policy.
Minister Fitzgerald looks forward to working with Government colleagues, members of the Joint Committee and others in achieving that goal.
She hopes she can count on your active support and guidance as she works towards implementing real and meaningful change