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Criminal Justice (Spent Convictions) Bill 2012 [Seanad]: Second Stage (Resumed) (Continued)

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 796 No. 3

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  12 o’clock

(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Brendan Ryan: Information on Brendan Ryan Zoom on Brendan Ryan] This Bill is not about allowing serious criminals expunge their record. In summary, I ask that the Minister review the provision stating that no more than two convictions can be spent. I ask him to make that amendment on Committee Stage. I have explained the effect of the anomaly which was not intended when the Bill was drafted. I am more than happy to meet with the Minister to discuss this matter further. I welcome the intention of the Bill and the majority of its provisions.

Deputy Michael Healy-Rae: Information on Michael Healy-Rae Zoom on Michael Healy-Rae I thank sincerely the members of the Technical Group for allowing me some of their time to speak on the Criminal Justice (Spent Convictions) Bill 2012. Like some of my colleagues who have spoken, while I welcome the Bill, I have reservations that in certain aspects it does not go far enough. Through my work over many years, I have come across what I consider to be very genuine cases. For example, a person may have made a mistake in his or her younger years - something that is possible for all of us. A person could have been arrested for being drunk and disorderly but this now hangs over him like a dark cloud throughout all the rest of his life. This is unfair. I agree there should be ways and mechanisms for cleaning the slate.

An offence committed in youth can have frightening consequences with regard to employment. Garda vetting of personnel is required for quite a number of positions of employment. All prospective employees of the HSE or the State, including contract workers, must be vetted by the Garda Síochána. Many people are unable to comply with the requirements because of a misdemeanour committed in their earlier years which may have been out of character and is a once-off offence. I do not mean that the record should be expunged for what one would call criminals. A previous speaker outlined a harmless type of incident in a person's youth. To think that this would follow a person through all the days of his or her life, is wrong.

There are certain professions for which it will always be necessary to declare a criminal conviction as these professions confer a position of power or of trust on a person. It will remain a legal requirement to ask an applicant about his or her convictions when that person is applying for relevant work as defined by the Bill. All convictions must be disclosed. Relevant work relates to work with children, vulnerable persons and work in certain State agencies and Government Departments. There is no blanket exemption for Civil Service or public service jobs. All convictions must be disclosed when making certain licence applications.

The proposed time period required before a sentence is declared spent ranges from three years for a fine of up to €500, to seven years for a custodial sentence of up to 12 months. The time period is also described as the rehabilitative or waiting period. Only two convictions can be spent for any individual. All other convictions must be disclosed even if the person meets the rest of the criteria for the spent conviction. In cases where a person is convicted of a third offence during the relevant period, then the first and second offences cannot become spent. All of these offences will have to be disclosed. I take exception to some aspects of the legislation dealing with the disclosure of offences. I would have liked to have seen the Bill go further in that regard.

Even though the Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence, Deputy Shatter, and I, would not agree on a lot of other issues, I welcome his statement that rehabilitation and participation in normal society must be an objective of our penal system and in which a spent conviction regime has a role to play. It is not often that we are both in agreement on certain aspects of his work, considering his support in pushing through the closure of more than 100 Garda stations this year, throughout the length and breadth of this country. The gardaí and the people working in the judicial system are all seeing the effects of this decision. Time will tell that this was a significant blunder.

I am disappointed at the lack of data on the number of individuals who will be eligible for spent convictions as defined in the Bill. Neither is data available from the Courts Service containing a level of detail that allows for a breakdown of the relevant custodial and non-custodial sentences defined in the Bill. The Irish Prison Service statistics provide a partial picture of the proportion of custodial sentences that may come within the scope of the Bill. Because these figures relate solely to those serving prison sentences, they are limited in their application. As defined, also excluded are those who received other sanctions such as community service orders, fines, probation orders and suspended sentences. The Bill proposes that custodial sentences of 12 months or less may be eligible to become spent convictions. However, while the data show information on sentences of less than 12 months, the figures for sentences of 12 months and up to two years are not reported. This means that some eligible sentences are not distinguishable from those that are not eligible. This lack of clarity and paucity of data is not helpful to the aim of this Bill. Data on sentences for sexual and homicide convictions are omitted as they will not become eligible to become spent. This is only right and proper. Serious offences should not be removed from the record of an offender. When a person commits a serious crime such as I have stated, he or she must pay the price and take the sentence with them for the rest of their lifetime.

There has been criticism of the effectiveness of the provision and it is questioned whether it provides a clean slate. It has been argued that the length of time it takes for a conviction to become spent undermines the very objective of the legislation providing for spent convictions. The period in which a clean slate is most required is immediately following completion of a sentence when, for instance, the rehabilitative effect of immediate employment is greatest. A person leaving prison must be enabled to re-integrate into society as quickly as possible. We all know that finding a job is difficult but even charitable or part-time work would be a means of keeping busy. The waiting period as provided in the Bill may mean that a person leaving prison could be left idle. We were always told there is nothing more dangerous than an idle mind. One would have to consider what might happen in the intervening period between leaving prison and being in a position to return to the workforce.

The Bill provides that the minimum period before a current conviction can become spent is three years. The UK law has been changed to shorten the waiting periods for convictions to become spent while at the same time widening the provisions to include convictions for longer sentences of up to four years.

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