Independent parole board must be first step in comprehensive reforms
Speaking in Dáil Éireann, second stage of Parole Bill 2016
I genuinely welcome this evening’s Bill and I commit my party to supporting it throughout its legislative process.
And I congratulate Fianna Fáil for devoting resources and parliamentary time to producing a thoughtful and well worked-out set of proposals that is of central importance but is hardly populist or headline-grabbing.
It has been long-standing Labour Party policy to put both the Prisons Service and the Parole Board on a firm statutory footing, independent of the Department of Justice.
We have very recently been debating here the need for Garda reform. This wasn’t just a call for change for change’s sake. What we want is more Gardaí on the ground – on the beat, patrolling our neighbourhoods. But we believe this outcome can only be achieved by speeding up the pace of reform within the Garda Síochána.
So, we need changes in structure, organisation and management in order to ensure the most effective deployment of the Gardaí and the most efficient possible use of resources.
That is why we want to see genuine reform our policing service, from the top down and the bottom up.
But that is just the beginning. The fight against crime includes straightforward, Garda-related targets such as improved detection and arrest rates. But it also involves the efficient and fair processing of trials and, crucially, arriving at the correct balance of deterrence, punishment and rehabilitation.
An approach to crime cannot be exclusively aimed at confrontation. It must be targeted also, as far as possible, at its elimination. This means effective policing, reforms in the way the courts work, improvements in the prison service and greater emphasis on the probation service.
And the State must also tackle with equal vigour the social conditions which give rise to criminal activity.
So, we in Labour have long argued for major changes in a crucial set of relationships, namely those between the Gardaí, the prison service, the Department of Justice, the courts and the probation and welfare service, subject to overall accountability to the Oireachtas.
There is an equal need for a wide range of educational, social and economic measures aimed at ending social deprivation and alienation.
Our prison system is antiquated, expensive and ineffective. The reformation and rehabilitation of offenders is at best sporadic and at worst non-existent. For far too many, prison does little or nothing to prepare its inhabitants to lead a crime-free, socially responsible life.
We support the establishment by statute of an independent Prisons Agency, with the function of managing prisons coherently and in a planned and effective manner.
The Agency should be autonomous in its operations and it should be accountable to the Oireachtas.
We need a new management structure that devolves greater autonomy and responsibility to prison governors for the management of, and future planning in relation to, their own institutions.
At present, the Prison Service has its own brass plate and its own logo but it remains simply a division of the Department of Justice. Prison governors are middle-ranking civil servants within the structure of the parent Department, with no real autonomy.
New prison legislation should also repeal and consolidate all the existing statutes, many of which date from the 19th century. The role and status of visiting committees should be upgraded in the legislation.
And of course, as this Bill provides, the advisory committee which deals with the release of long term prisoners should be placed on a statutory basis as a Parole Board.
In recent decades the Irish prison population has not been wildly larger than those of comparable Western European countries. However, a significantly larger percentage of our population has received and served a prison sentence. In other words, we have been sending a relatively larger number of people to jail, to serve relatively shorter sentences.
The alternatives to prison, particularly in cases of minor crime, are not used in this jurisdiction to anything approaching their potential. Yet we cannot argue that a policy of more or less immediate recourse to imprisonment as a short, sharp shock has the appropriate deterrent effect. Our recidivism rates speak for themselves.
Left to its own dynamic, the prison population will always expand to fill the number of spaces available. And so, inevitably, there will be over-crowding and there will be a number of prisoners on unplanned and unsupervised early release, who were not released for humanitarian or rehabilitation reasons.
We need in this House to examine and address the issue of sentencing policy and the desirable duration of sentences. A comprehensive review should be undertaken by the Oireachtas in relation to the range of sentencing options, with a view to better co-ordination of penal and sentencing policy.
I would also mention the Probation and Welfare Service – the Cinderella of the Department of Justice. The Probation and Welfare Service continues to be under-staffed and under-resourced. The result is that there are too many people in prison who don’t need to be there, because the resources have not been made available to the probation service. This service should be the primary target for additional resources in the area of sentencing.
And this service also needs a statutory footing, operational independence and a clearly defined role.
We need serious action on a programme for the re-integration of prisoners. This means a comprehensive rehabilitation programme of sentence management, based on individual needs analysis.
Such a programme would plan for reintegration as the norm, enable prisoners to make well informed choices, provide personal and educational skills, treat mental and physical health problems and addictions, develop a special role for prison officers, provide strong links from custody to the wider community, and provide on-going support to former prisoners seeking and continuing in employment.
I believe the previous Government made real progress in implementing the principle that a sentence of imprisonment should be regarded as a sanction of last resort. Community-based sanctions are significantly less costly to implement than custodial sentences. But of course we can and should do more.
Incidentally, it may be noted that many of our proposals involve conferring greater autonomy on agencies and services that are under the aegis of the Department of Justice. If that is seen as an implicit criticism of the ‘dead hand’ of that Department, then I believe the criticism is well warranted when you consider the many reviews of the Department – most recently in the Toland Report.
I am sure the Tánaiste will do her best to again reassure us that reform in her Department is ongoing. I won’t hold my breath.
Finally, there is great urgency in tackling now the conditions that cause the crime of the future. A serious concerted effort is essential to provide targeted programmes for young people at risk.
That is precisely why I have been repeatedly asking for more information about the Government’s plans for a North Inner City Task Force.
In the interim, however, this Bill – and its acceptance by the Government – is a welcome first step in the right direction.