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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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  1 o’clock

(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Frank Feighan: Information on Frank Feighan Zoom on Frank Feighan] The convictions, however, should be spent after a period. I welcome the Bill.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan Zoom on Bernard Durkan As one of the few people in this House and certainly the only remaining one on this side who has actual personal experience of conviction and serving time in prison I should be a bit of an authority on this subject. I like to think that I am but that may not be the case and everybody might not agree. This is a very important Bill. I agree with Deputy Tom Hayes that there are countless instances of people who have committed crime, including serious crime, who will never commit such a crime again and knew full well the consequences for the victims, society and for themselves immediately after the crime happened. They held up their hands saying "Why did I do this?" and are profoundly sorry. We must reach out to them. This is progressive legislation to deal with a situation. I particularly draw attention to first-time offenders, whether their is a minor or more serious offence. The first-time offender needs special consideration in all circumstances. Over the past few years I have spent a good deal of time visiting prisoners in almost all of the prisons in the UK and in this country. Having spent time in one of them on a semi-permanent basis I feel that I know a little bit about them.

Organised crime is a huge problem. There are victims of organised crime who spend long terms in prison for something in which ordinarily they would never think of becoming involved had they not been harnessed by organised criminals. I have long believed that we will never properly tackle that kind of criminal until we have detention. We had it for other organisations years ago and it was said it did not work but it is time that society dealt with ruthless organised criminals. Otherwise it will pay a high price. Society continues to be their victim. The legal profession will say "What about their constitutional rights?" What about them? What about the constitutional rights of their victims, whether the people they have used to pursue their crime or the actual victims, shot or killed or whatever the case may be? They have rights too. Their rights do not come into the discussion of these matters.

Serious drug cabals control a huge market throughout the length and breadth of the country. They dictate the pace, the number and type of personnel inducted into their organisations to help them increase the profit from their heinous crimes. The concept of this Bill should be extended to the first time offender in those circumstances. I am sure that everybody in this Houses knows them. I know plenty of people whose families were never involved in crime, not even minor crime, who got offers they could not refuse. They made a once-off decision and paid the price. The criminal never gets caught but the messenger does. They have been caught several times and received long sentences. I am not suggesting that they should be given a pat on the back and allowed to walk free. By all means they must take responsibility for their actions. Once in prison, however, they should have first access to rehabilitative or educational training. If possible they should be segregated from the hardened criminals, the recidivists. If that were done we would make a serious dent in the level of minor and serious crime.

Deputy Stanton referred to crime in New York. The former mayor, Rudy Giuliani claimed to be responsible for reducing crime levels in New York. He was responsible for dealing with lower level crime but his predecessor, Mayor Koch, took the major organisers, the real heavy hitters, out of the equation. This involved some erosion of their rights but they were put away and out of business. As a result the crime network was dramatically weakened to the extent that it was relatively easy to deal with the rest of it. The community courts and the speed with which they can react are important. They are personal, and have the benefit of one to one local knowledge. That can also be negative, depending on the attitude of those involved but in general it is useful.

We need to do two things, first, tackle serious crime in a meaningful way that will make it clear to all and sundry that this is not the way forward for anyone. Over the past 15 years innocent people have been shot and killed almost weekly, as a result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time or for daring to raise questions about the activities of serious criminals. We must separate those people from other criminals because some of them regard it as a business. It is a nefarious business. We must tackle the way in which they can use innocent people in their communities to improve that business.

When offenders have served their time or made retribution in whatever way the courts deemed suitable their case should be re-appraised. In the event that people have shown remorse and agreed to mend their ways and there is a clear indication that they will not return to that route there should be a probationary period within which, as the Bill provides, cases can be reviewed with a view to expunging them from the record. There is not much sense in leaving them there if somebody will use the privilege of the House at some time in the future to release information on somebody, in which case it becomes a matter of public record. We must address these issues.

Training and rehabilitation are of huge importance, particularly for first-time offenders. I do not see the benefit of training and education to a person who has spent half his or her life in prison for a series of offences unless he or she wants to get a PhD in crime. Some of them do. Some people come out of prison better qualified for criminal activity than when they went in. I have seen at first-hand how that can happen. That is no secret and we should not facilitate it. That is why we need much more segregation in the system than exists. There is a provision for segregating serious criminals from the rest but that is not what I am talking about. I refer to the first-time offender who in the first instance needs to be kept away from contamination and contagion by the serious, hardened criminal element, in order to prepare him or her for re-entry into society.

Tagging has been tried elsewhere and we should try it. It works sometimes. There will always be people who try to circumvent the system. Modern technology is interesting. It is possible to keep people under 24-7 surveillance and to monitor their movements at all times.

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