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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 Peter Fitzpatrick: Information on Peter Fitzpatrick Zoom on Peter Fitzpatrick] The Bill has retrospective effect and applies to convictions acquired in the period prior to its enactment. The Bill provides enhanced protection to children and vulnerable adults and is a balanced measure which helps offenders while protecting society where serious offences, including sexual offences, are involved. It makes it easier to access employment and should result in a reduction in recidivism while assisting with the rehabilitation of ex-offenders who have demonstrated a positive change in their ways to make it easier to access employment and reintegrate into society. The Bill is long overdue and brings Ireland into line with almost all EU member states by providing that persons convicted of certain offences can eventually leave the past behind to get on with their lives and integrate quickly back into society.

In 2011, there were 11,187 prison committals for sentences of up to 12 months, excluding homicide and sexual offences which are excluded from the provisions of the Bill. These represented 87% of all such committals in that year. The men are, by definition, in prison for serious offences and are not covered by the legislation. The main problem faced by ex-offenders are visa restrictions, access to employment, dismissal from employment, access to finance, access to insurance, education and a restriction on jury service. Improving access to employment is an important goal of the Bill. Evidence shows that having a job is a major factor in preventing future offending. Many offenders, however, face significant barriers to re-entering the labour market even where they are committed to changing their lives.

I finish by thanking the Minister for supplying a patrol car to the Garda station in Omeath, County Louth, which is a step in the right direction. I commend the Bill to the House.

Deputy Simon Harris: Information on Simon Harris Zoom on Simon Harris I am very pleased to have an opportunity to speak on the Criminal Justice (Spent Convictions) Bill. It represents a welcome progression of the proposals for reform suggested by the Law Reform Commission. It is also important to acknowledge the constructive and interactive approach to the Bill by the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter, who considered amendments in the Seanad to tweak and improve the Bill. It is important to acknowledge the role of Deputy Dara Calleary in Private Members' time.

The Bill represents a further effort to allow those who are making the wise decision to move away from lives of criminal activity to do so. It helps them and acknowledges their efforts. In allowing the removal of the disclosure requirement for certain types of previous conviction, the Bill supports those who are actively attempting to move toward a more positive and productive life for themselves, their families and the wider community. The purpose of our criminal justice system is to get people to move away from crime. They pay for their offences by serving a sentence or paying a fine but should then move on to break the cycle of crime. Too often people are left permanently marked and ostracised by virtue of past actions which may be foolish, silly or stupid but still relatively minor in the context of the criminal justice system. While those actions have necessitated the State's intervention through the criminal justice system, there is also a clear need to acknowledge the longer-run implications of such actions and the degree to which ostracisation further undermines efforts to rehabilitate former convicted criminals.

It is important to acknowledge clearly the necessary limitations and restraints contained within the Bill. Serious crimes such as murder, manslaughter, rape and sexual offences may, quite rightly, never become spent. Sentences of significant duration - those beyond 12 months - also fall within the category of those that cannot become spent and only two convictions may become spent over the course of a person's lifetime. I have listened to debate in the House as to whether two is an adequate number. My view is that two is plenty. If we increase the number to permit more than two, we risk diluting the rehabilitative function of the Bill.

There are also limitations in relation to sensitive positions and certain types of licenses such as taxi and private security licences. I welcome these provisions and commend and thank the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Alan Kelly, for the work he has done to ensure that when a person gets in a taxi, one has a better knowledge of who is driving. Taxi drivers are entrusted with the lives of children, young people, women and vulnerable people to bring them from one place to the next. The new phone app launched by the Minister of State makes it very easy to see exactly who is driving a taxi and to ensure that he or she is properly licensed. It is an important and welcome development. The provisions are all necessary to ensure that potentially dangerous persons are prevented from accessing positions which would put members of the public in positions where they may be vulnerable or open to criminal assault or worse.

In addition to the aforementioned limitations, the Bill provides for a significant period of time that a person must remain conviction-free before he or she will be entitled to consider his or her conviction spent. This provision is very important. Where we pass legislation of this type, convicted persons must also show their good faith and step up to the mark. The Bill represents an important step forward to facilitate the genuine rehabilitation of those who have past convictions back into the community. It allows them to regain the self confidence and pride of being able to gain meaningful work. A conviction is not wiped and does not disappear, but it does not need to be disclosed where a person applies for employment. The Bill will actively assist efforts to prevent further offending and incentivise people to become civic minded, actively economically contributing members of the community. Accordingly, the Bill provides a clearer path back to a normal lifestyle.

Introducing the Bill on behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter, the Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs, Deputy Lucinda Creighton, outlined the Minister's hope to publish and introduce the fines (amendment) Bill. A fines Bill will be another important step in the reform of our criminal justice system. As we allow convictions to become spent through the Bill before us, we must also consider the range of sentences being applied. Do we really want people to be imprisoned for failing to pay for a television licence? I note the Minister's positive comment that prison should only be used where appropriate. There are significant financial costs involved in sending people prison but it also represents a significant societal message. We must ensure that the punishment fits the crime. While I look forward to the publication of the fines (amendment) Bill, if we move from custodial to non-custodial sentencing where appropriate, the State must retain the necessary powers, by way of attachment orders for example, to ensure that fines are paid. Fines cannot be dismissed or ignored. The fines (amendment) Bill must provide not only for non-custodial sentences, but for the power to attach income to ensure that crimes and fines are paid for.

We must also consider youth diversion, which is an issue very close to Deputy Alan Shatter's heart. He has done a great deal of work in this area as has the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald. We must look at the vulnerable young people in our communities, often in deprived areas in every county, who find themselves caught up in petty crime. We must look at diverting them away from that. A range of measures are being considered by the Minister. While the Bill before us considers spent convictions, we must also take the next step to prevent people committing offences in the first place. That is where youth diversion programmes come in.

The Schedule of the Bill which sets out offences which are exempt from the provisions of the legislation links in with the National Vetting Bureau Act. This is very important. We have made significant progress in the vetting of people who work with children and vulnerable adults but we must not become complacent. There is still a great deal to do. At our clinics, Deputies meet community organisations, sports clubs and schools which continue to encounter long waits to have people vetted by the Garda. The Minister has made progress but we must consider extending vetting to more groups. There are people who want their volunteers to be vetted but whose organisations are not yet covered by the legislation.

We must look at what happens where a person leaves the prison system, particularly after a relatively short sentence. We must examine how to link them back into their community. I have visited rehabilitation programmes throughout County Wicklow over the course of my two years as a Deputy and I have seen some superb work. I have met heroin addicts who have been rehabilitated. They came out of prison and obtained degrees and are contributing to society again. One cannot put a price on the effectiveness of proper rehabilitative services. A great deal of work is being done nationally by voluntary groups. Different methods of rehabilitation work for different people and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. The Government has pushed the issue but when the doors of a prison swing open at the end of a sentence, we must ensure the person does not come back through those doors. That is what rehabilitative services must be about.

These are issues which must be looked at in the Bill and in the context of wider criminal justice reform. While we must provide for convictions to be spent where appropriate, we must also ensure that those working with vulnerable people can never have those convictions spent.

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