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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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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Tom Fleming: Information on Tom Fleming Zoom on Tom Fleming] If the house is burgled or there is another harmful effect, it appears there is a condition written in the very small print which excludes insurer liability or payment by the insurance company. We need to ensure close scrutiny of these very important matters which will affect many households.

Deputy Michael Conaghan: Information on Michael Conaghan Zoom on Michael Conaghan I wish to share time with Deputies Anne Ferris, Michael McNamara and Brendan Ryan.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Michael Kitt Zoom on Michael Kitt Is that agreed? Agreed.

Deputy Michael Conaghan: Information on Michael Conaghan Zoom on Michael Conaghan For too long in Ireland, even the most minor criminal conviction has amounted, in effect, to a life sentence. A person may not be condemned to spend the rest of his or her life behind prison walls, but he or she is condemned to a lifetime of stigma, lost career opportunities and serious difficulties in rebuilding a normal life. The Bill before the House is a most welcome step in the slow process of reorienting the criminal justice system away from a system which merely serves to penalise wrongdoers towards one which will allow them to be rehabilitated in the interests of the entire society.

Much of what is considered normal in Irish prisons should not happen in a civilised country. The job of reforming the prison system is a massive one. The Government has committed to closing St. Patrick's Institution for young offenders, which has been condemned for many years by many expert groups as completely unfit for purpose. More than this, the Government has, in a time of austerity, done what Fianna Fáil failed to do when it was throwing money around, namely, make the necessary funding available to make the closing of St. Patrick's Institution a reality. However, there is much more to be done. The prisons are overcrowded; practices such as slopping out are not acceptable and broader reform of the system is necessary. It is in this context that I welcome the Bill.

By international standards, Ireland is years behind other countries. The United Kingdom first introduced spent convictions legislation nearly 40 years ago in 1974. Last year Mr. Liam Herrick of the Irish Penal Reform Trust was able to write: "The fact that Ireland remains the only EU state without any system of spent convictions is only one example of how we condemn even minor offenders to lifetime barriers to employment." I welcome the comments of the Minister of State, Deputy Lucinda Creighton, who, in opening the debate on behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter, said this spent conviction legislation was only one strand of a suite of policies to avoid the creation of a gap between offenders and "normal society". Other aspects include a focus on youth diversion programmes and the use of non-custodial alternatives such as probation, community service and restorative justice measures. These are very fine policy priorities and I look forward to having the opportunity to discuss them at a later stage.

We must ask what is the purpose of the criminal justice system. Is it just to punish? Certainly, this is one element, but so too is rehabilitation. Unfortunately, this is not a strong enough current of thought. One shining light in this area is the prison education system. Curriculums devised by the City of Dublin VEC play a valuable role in allowing people to leave the prison system with much greater literacy and numeracy skills. Many prisoners really do engage with the education service. They want to better and prepare themselves for the world outside. I pay tribute to the teachers and City of Dublin VEC for this remarkable aspect of their education service.

Serving a custodial sentence is, in reality, only one part of the equation. Recreating a normal life outside of prison can present further serious difficulties. For example, the obligation to inform an employer of a conviction sets off an alarm bell that is impossible to quieten. It is an employers' market. In a choice between two candidates of equal merit - one with a conviction and one without - there will be only one winner and it would be hard to blame the employer. According to the Law Reform Commission, only 52% of employers would employ an ex-offender. In similar research the Small Firms Association claim this figure rises to between 76% and 87%.

People must have the opportunity to reintegrate fully into society. Finding a job is an essential part of getting back to a normal life. Where someone is determined not to reoffend, it is only right that, after a certain period, he or she be allowed to leave his or her past behind. Where someone cannot find work, it is possible that old habits might re-emerge. Without hope, the likelihood of a return to criminal activity increases. There might be an economic incentive to return to crime. If we are serious about reducing recidivism, we must be serious about rehabilitating prisoners and ensuring they have hope on their release.

The Bill will not put in place a mechanism to have any conviction to be expunged and will not wipe clean a person's criminal record; rather, it will put in place a system under which certain convictions, at the less serious end of the criminal spectrum, will not have to be disclosed in certain circumstances where a person does not reoffend for a set period of time. The time period after which a conviction must not be disclosed varies, depending on the severity of the crime, the length of sentence involved and so on. A sliding scale will be put in place, from a maximum of a five year rehabilitation period in the case of a 12 month custodial sentence down to a two year period for less serious offences.

The measures contained within the Bill do not apply to every criminal conviction and there are necessary safeguards. Serious offences such as murder, manslaughter, sexual offences and others are excluded from the remit of the Bill. A conviction involving a sentence of more than 12 months cannot be considered spent under the Bill. Neither will repeat offenders be able to have their convictions considered spent. No individual can have more than two spent convictions, even if they meet all of the other criteria. Similarly, there are safeguards in place regarding the types of employment where the measures outlined in the Bill do not come into effect. For example, where a person seeks employment which involves working with children, vulnerable persons or certain State bodies and Departments, all convictions must still be disclosed. In 2011 there were over 11,000 prison committals with sentences of up to 12 months which would fall within the remit of the Bill. The Bill will give those convicted hope that, once they make a commitment not to reoffend, they will be able to leave their past behind and rebuild their lives. It achieves a balance between giving hope to those who seek rehabilitation and maintaining the need for disclosures in the public interest. I welcome the Bill as a positive step towards a criminal justice system that will have rehabilitation and reintegration into society as its core objective.

Deputy Anne Ferris: Information on Anne Ferris Zoom on Anne Ferris I welcome the opportunity to speak about this very progressive legislation. The Bill is one which, when enacted, will allow those who have made mistakes in the past the opportunity to move on with their lives. Last week, as Vice Chairman of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality, I visited Midtown Community Court in New York, which deals specifically with citizens who are in court having committed "quality of life" offences. I asked what these offences were and was told they included, among other offences, spitting, jumping turnstiles, graffiti, being drunk and disorderly and shoplifting. Instead of sending these offenders to prison, they are given community work to carry out. A dedicated judge deals with these cases and if the offenders carry out their community work and do not reoffend for six months, their cases are dismissed and records sealed. Midtown Community Court also deals with each individual on a personal basis and has social workers, clinicians and other professionals to help people deal with their problems.

I also met four Supreme Court judges who strongly advocated the community court model. They each specialised in certain areas, for example, drugs, mental health issues or war veterans; therefore, offenders coming before the courts appear before the judge appropriate to their own situation. The system aims to treat the person, rather than just pass sentence for committing a crime. In addition, I visited John Jay College of Criminal Justice, where I heard from the director and other professionals teaching community outreach programmes how community courts could be more effective than simply locking up offenders and throwing away the key. This progressive way of treating people who have committed minor crimes is something from which we in this country could learn.

That said, I am happy the Minister has pursued the Bill and commend the work that has gone into it. However, while I am pleased with the overall intent, there is space for improvements. The Mercy Law Resource Centre has raised a number of further issues that I would like to see addressed. As I am sure the Minister knows, it is an independent law centre and charity which provides free legal advice and representation in the areas of housing and social welfare law for persons who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. Research undertaken by Focus Ireland and PACE illustrates that the relationship between homelessness and crime is complex. Homelessness did not inevitably lead to criminal behaviour among the sample researched.

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