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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 David Stanton: Information on David Stanton Zoom on David Stanton] Where this has happened in other jurisdictions the success rate has been extremely high. People who have drug problems who are sent to jail, and even people who do not, might end up being in a worse state on their release. A good deal of work in this area is being done in prisons. We visited Mountjoy Prison recently and I commend the governor and the Prison Service on the work they are doing in trying to combat this problem.

In respect of people who are sent to prison there is often a "hang 'em and flog 'em" view. Certainly, as Deputy Harris has said, people who are dangerous and have committed serious offences must be put out of circulation; of that there is no question. However, we are talking about very minor offences and low-level crime in this legislation, and we need to start considering how to provide for these in a different way.

Finland has decreased its prison population by 25% by using very progressive methods such as those that I and others mentioned. The justice committee will launch a report on this area in two weeks' time and, following that, I would like to talk about that issue in the House. The cost of keeping a person in prison is between €60,000 and €90,000 per year. If we could take some of that money and invest it in diversion programmes, as Deputy Harris and others have said, or other treatment programmes, it would far better. This Bill is a step in that direction. I am aware that proposals have been made to expand certain time limits that are provided for and so on. That can possibly happen later, but let us see how we get on with the legislation first. We do not know how many people will be able to avail of the provisions in it because it is a self-declaration type of system. This legislation is a start, it is progressive and it will be monitored, but we need to start examining other progressive ways of reducing the numbers in prison, reducing criminality and dealing with other issues.

On the last occasion I spoke in the House, I referred to the issue of alcohol abuse. The number of people who are committing public order offences because of alcohol abuse is huge. I said then, and I will say it again, that we should probably consider restricting the sale of spirits to people over the age of 21. That is a huge area, but it is another day's work.

Deputy Tom Hayes: Information on Tom Hayes Zoom on Tom Hayes I welcome the Bill, which is long overdue. It is important that we have a mature discussion on it. Its consideration here is opportune because it has been discussed by many people over a lengthy period. The reasons for introducing it are many and varied. A spent convictions system means that an adult who has been convicted of a certain type of offence does not have to disclose this offence after a set amount of time. Spent convictions apply to both custodial and non-custodial sentences. It does not mean that the record of the conviction is deleted; rather, that it can only be accessed and made public in certain circumstances. There are numerous exceptions to non-disclosure rules. Only convictions resulting in sentences of 12 months or less are capable of being spent under this Bill. I wonder about the setting of the 12-month period. What thought went into that decision? I ask the Minister of State to explain the reason a period of 12 months was decided upon. There are people who committed crimes in their younger days for which they were given custodial sentences of more than 12 months, but who have now got their lives back together and got jobs and are working hard to support their families. They have worked with other people in their communities and they are remorseful for what they did in the past. I wonder if the 12-month period provided for in the Bill is too strict. In that respect, there are convincing arguments to be made. Like every other public representative, I deal with people in my clinics who have been sentenced, are remorseful for having committed an offence and want to do something about it. They want to improve themselves and take up another job but because of the conviction they cannot get one. That is problem facing ordinary people who in these difficult times are only trying to work to support their families. I recently met a man who was an example in this respect in the way he was looking after his elderly parents at home. He wanted to improve his lot but a conviction from many years ago was still preventing him from getting certain work.

We need to be braver in what we are doing in this Bill, because it could improve the quality of people's lives and help many people. As society is developing and the public are more accepting of the fact that people can make mistakes and later want to improve their lot, we should be more open in the way we approach people with such convictions.

I noted the figures given by Deputy Stanton. In 2011 there were 11,187 prison committals for a term of less than 12 months, which made up 87% of the total number of people who were committed to prison. Therefore, this Bill can benefit a large number of people.

We need to be brave in what we are doing. This is an excellent Bill that can benefit a large number of people. There are many people under the radar who would be shy about coming forward about what they have been involved in, but if they came forward their lives would be much better and that would benefit society. An important aspect is the benefit these people can provide to society. In addition, people who have been in trouble in the past and who have got their lives together can be a good example to young people, whether they were involved in drugs, drink driving or anything else. The example such people would give to young people is relevant to this Bill. It is a strong reason for putting this Bill through, and I have no doubt that is what we will do. The provisions of the Bill can benefit society and the people concerned, and those people can be an example to young people. I fully support the Bill, but I ask the Minister to clarify the position on the question I raised.

Acting Chairman (Deputy Peter Mathews): Information on Peter Mathews Zoom on Peter Mathews I call Deputy Durkan. I understand he is sharing his time with Deputy Feighan.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan Zoom on Bernard Durkan Yes. I propose to allow my colleague Deputy Feighan to speak first.

Acting Chairman (Deputy Peter Mathews): Information on Peter Mathews Zoom on Peter Mathews To open the batting.

Deputy Frank Feighan: Information on Frank Feighan Zoom on Frank Feighan This is an important Bill. We have a prison in Castlerea, which is in my constituency. It was one of the only towns in the country that campaigned to have a prison. The prison is very well run. The proposal to have an open prison in a house near Castlerea is a matter of concern to the general public in the area. I had a first meeting in the Prison Service building last Monday with the director general of the Prison Service and the governor of the Castlerea Prison. We wanted those fears allayed and an assurance that the necessary precautions would be taken and assessments would be made if prisoners were moved from Castlerea Prison to Harristown House. What is good about a democracy and an open government is that one can bring the fears of the people to light and they can be teased out in a normal manner. A public meeting will held in Castlerea tonight which will be attended by all Oireachtas Members from the area and also by members of the Prison Service to answer whatever questions people have, and I hope that will be done.

I thank Deputy Durkan for his sharing his time. The provision in respect of convictions that are not considered spent when people apply for certain licences such as taxi licences and private security licences is very appropriate.

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