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Money saved through use of community service orders should be reinvested in crime prevention measures – O’Brien

7 April, 2011 - by Jonathan O'Brien TD


Speaking in the Dáil today on the Criminal Justice Community Service Bill, Sinn Féin Justice Spokesperson Jonathan O’Brien said money saved through the use of alternatives to prison should be reinvested in crime prevention measures such as the juvenile diversion programme.

Deputy O’Brien also said victim impact statements should be part of the process of deciding whether someone is suitable for a community service order.

He said:

“Undoubtedly an increased use of community service orders would lead to savings in the overall scheme of things.

“The Value for Money analysis of the community service order scheme, carried out by the Department of Justice and Law Reform in 2009, demonstrated that the use of community service in lieu of prison would produce significant savings.

“The cost per community service order is estimated at approx. €4,295 per offender while the alternative costs of imprisonment are estimated to amount to approx. €27,478 per offender.

“The state should not see these savings as a means to an end but as an opportunity to reinvest in crime preventions measures such as the juvenile diversion programme as well as increasing funding to the probation service to deal with the added number of reports this bill will create.”

Deputy O’Brien continued:

“Every crime has a victim and the effect that the crime committed has had on the victim should and must be a central consideration when a judge is leaning towards the imposition of a community service order rather than a prison sentence.

“We need to consider the inclusion of victim impact statements as part of the process in determining whether someone is suitable for a community service order.” ENDS

Full text of Deputy O'Brien's contribution follows:

While the current amendment before the house does not represent a wide ranging departure from existing legislation it does however have the potential to kick start a wider debate on the sentencing of our judiciary and our current prison policy and it is a potential we should embrace and explore.

At a time when we face the reality of an already overcrowded prison system and at a time when prison numbers continue to increase rather than decrease,

When the operational procedures and conditions within the prisons themselves are geared more towards punishment rather than rehabilitation.

And at a time when many people are of the opinion that we are not getting value for money, then I feel it is very important we debate the future of how we deal with crime in this state.

The recent decision by the Minister to review the future viability of Thornton Hall is welcome and I want to congratulate the Minister for initiating such a review, I feel it would be prudent if this review formed part of a wider debate on the future direction of our sentencing and prison policy.
It is my belief that what as a society we require a complete reorientation of the penal system away from the prison and towards restorative justice in the community.
We need to shift the prison from centre stage and devise more imaginative, humane, compassionate, and effective ways to deal with the petty offenders who form the bulk of those sent to prison each year.

The Bill we are debating here today, coupled with the review on Thornton Hall, in my opinion, presents this house with the ideal opportunity to draw a line in the sand on a sentencing policy which has frustrated and continues to frustrate many members of the public.

For example many people in my own constituency of Cork North Central struggle to have any faith in a judicial system which on one hand allows a convicted heroin dealer, caught with drugs with a street value of almost €200,000 get a 6 year suspended sentence while on the other hand the same judicial system sends an individual who failed to pay a fishing fine to Cork prison for almost a week.

And this is just one example of how the inconsistencies within the sentencing policy currently being implemented leads to a lack of trust and faith in our judiciary.

It is for this reason that I urge the Minister, in the context of this review in relation to Thornton Hall and the passage of this piece of legislation and in the introduction of all future justice legislation

To look at ‘what works, what is in the best interests of those working within the prison system and those who are sentenced to prison and most importantly what gives the taxpayer the best value for money.’

For instance, unless proper drug and rehabilitative supports in prisons are resourced, alongside educational facilities, and other steps to address recidivism are taken, we will simply be ignoring what has been proven internationally to work.

Minister, I think it is time that we all acknowledged that creating a couple of hundred extra cells is not a sufficient mechanism to tackling the growing prison crisis we face.

What we need is a well thought out and adequately resourced strategy to deal with the increasing rates of imprisonment.

The increase in prison numbers which have led to a prison system bursting at the seams and has contributed to the creation of serious health and safety issues within the prisons themselves as well as increasing the dangers faced by, not only prisoners, but also for the staff working in our prisons.

Therefore, it is imperative that future justice policy needs to be very mindful of the causal factors which are helping feed these increases and address them accordingly, factors such as poverty, embedded disadvantage, inequality and addiction.

While the number of prisoners has grown due to a variety of issues, such as those I just listed, we should also recognise that an increase in the use of custodial sentences alongside a complex asylum and immigration system and the enactment of criminal justice legislation since 2000 are also contributory factors.

The move towards the provision of mandatory minimum sentences for an expanding number of offences is a questionable policy.

Mandatory sentences have been proven internationally to not only swell prison numbers but it has been proved they have little or no impact on crime trends.

Over the past decade we have seen a slow but progressive increase in the prison population while also experiencing a sharp increase in the daily average number of persons in custody.

What this appears to indicate is a slow increase in prison numbers, exacerbated by an increase in prison sentences for minor offences but held back by overcrowding.

It was reported that in April 2010, overcrowding in the Irish prison system had reached record highs and that, as a consequence, more than 800 inmates were freed on the early release program as there was insufficient space to contain them.

The vast majority of who were serving sentences of less than 12 months.

We should also note that International research indicates that short prison sentences act neither as a deterrent, nor as a means of rehabilitating the offender.

This goes to the very heart of the debate in my opinion. Do we as a state view prison sentences as a tool to punish or as an opportunity to rehabilitate offenders?

Now there is no question in my mind that the relatively limited duration of many sentences handed down by our courts, especially those sentences of 12 months and less means that there is a limit to the amount of services we can provide to people.

Therefore we have a limited scope in which we would help in the rehabilitation process and therefore address the high rates of reoffending.

The same question can be asked of community service orders. Do we view them a means to punish or rehabilitate? This answer is dictated by the model Ireland employs.

The application of the community service order scheme differs from country to country and the outcomes depend on the type of model used.

For example, some community service models focus on educating offenders about the impact their crime has on victims, the wider community, and on the offender themselves.

Some models focus on training offenders in useful skills, while others involve more menial tasks.

Ireland, in my opinion, falls into the latter category.

The Probation Service in its 2009 annual report describe the work involved in community service order scheme we use as including:

“landscaping, painting and decorating, repairs and renovation, work support to community centres, sports clubs and schools among many other challenging schemes in local communities.”

The lack of mention of education, training or up skilling offenders to give them the tools to break the cycle of crime is stark by its ommission.

In my opinion, the imposition of community service orders must be two fold, firstly they should be about accountability and secondly they should be about rehabilitation.

Those who commit crime must be held accountable for their actions but as a society I also feel we have a responsibility to ensure that the offender gets the opportunity to access proper training and education so they do not become repeat offenders.

I know there will be some people out there who will question this approach. They will state that a person who commits a crime should do the time and that the state should not be spending valuable resources on rehabilitation.

While this maybe a valid opinion in their minds it is not one I share.

I believe that a judicial system which is only geared towards punishment and does not recognise the benefits of rehabilitation is counterproductive.

Any legislation which moves our justice system further towards rehabilitation and accountability rather than just being focused on punishment is to be welcome.

The Criminal Justice (Community Service) Bill 2011 does just that.

This Bill sets out when a court shall or when a court may consider a community service order where a prison sentence would otherwise have been enforced.

This bill does not create any new sentence that does not already exist in Irish law.

Community service orders are already a tool which is open to the judiciary when dealing with convictions.

This is a very important fact which should be highlighted;

When a community service order is issued, the Judge must do a number of things,

They must explain to the offender

(a) the obligations of community service;
(b) the possibility of review; and
(c) the consequences of failure to comply with the community service order.

Failure of the offender to comply or complete their community service order can result in a fine while continuing the community service,

Or a recall of the community service order in favour of an alternative sentence, which in the vast majority of cases will mean imprisonment.

At present the judiciary are free to disregard community service orders as an option to imprisonment.

This amendment proposes to change this situation by making it a requirement to consider community service orders as an alternative to imprisonment for minor offences.

In recent years there has been an increase in imprisonments for minor offences. This has had far reaching implications for society in terms of prison overcrowding, prison conditions and the ability to rehabilitate offenders, in addition to increasing public expenditure levels.

All of the data available to us on prison numbers appears to show that a large number of imprisonments are for minor offences, and that these numbers are on the increase.

A recent report by the Irish Prison Service shows that between 2004 and 2009 prison sentences of:

· between 6 & 12 months increased by more than 50%,
· sentences between 3 & 6 months increased by almost 60%
· while sentences of less than 3 months increased by a staggering 188%.

In 2009 there were 10,865 prison sentences imposed by the courts. Of this 9,216 or 85% were for sentences of 12 months or less.
While speaking to people regarding this proposed amendment there were two questions which repeatedly came up.

The first is the type of crime those people serving sentences of less than 12 months had committed.

To answer the question we can look to the Irish Prison Service who recently produced a snapshot of the type of offenders who were serving prison sentences of 12 months or less.

This snapshot was conducted on the 4th December 2009 and it revealed that on this particular day there were 467 people serving sentences of less than 12 months in Irish prisons.

•185 (40%) were for offences against property (theft etc.) without violence;
• 100 (21%) were for other offences;
• 78 (17%) were for road traffic offences;
• 58 (12%) were for other offences against the person (assault etc.);
• 41 (9%) were for drug offences;
• 4 (<1%) were for sexual offences;
1>• 1 (<1%) was for offences against property (theft etc.) with violence.
1>More recent data shows that fine defaulters accounted for more than 3,300 committals to prison in the first 10 months of 2010.
Now this statistic is a very troubling revelation. It is particularly worrying to realise that people who fail to pay small fines, for whatever reason - people whose offending in my opinion should not be serious enough to attract a custodial sentence in the first place - end up in prison.

As they serve short periods in custody, fine defaulters account for only 1 or 2 per cent of the prison population on any given day therefore leading to a distortion of the figures.

Working on the statistics I just mentioned there is a concern among the wider public that offenders who have committed crimes of a certain nature could become beneficiaries of this legislation.

And in fairness this is a genuine concern when one considers that those who committed crimes of assault with violence, drug related crime, crimes of a sexual nature or of offences against property with violence made up 23% of those serving 12 months or less on the 4th of December.

In order to allay these fears we must look at Section 3(b) and Section 4 of the Bill which deals with these concerns adequately in my opinion.

Section 3(1b) provides that where a court is considering the making of a community service order in lieu of a prison sentence, it has to give notice to the Probation Service.

It should also be noted that this Bill seeks to improve the existing legislation and make the procedure and system of making such probation reports more standardised, providing a time limit for efficiency and a certainty within the process and this is reflected in

Section 3(1c) which states that there will be a requirement on the probation service to act in a speedy manner when a judge indicates that he or she is considering a community service order in lieu of a prison sentence.


Section 3(1d) states that the assessment report by a probation officer should be given within 28 days of court notice to the Probation Service. In exceptional circumstances this time period can be extended, where “there is good reason for doing so and it would be in the interests of justice so to do.”

Section 4(1a) states that a court shall not make a community service order unless the following conditions have been complied with:

1. having considered the offender’s circumstances,

2. having considered the assessment report prepared by a probation officer pursuant to the request under section 3(1B)

3. where the court thinks it necessary, having heard evidence from such an officer, that the offender is a suitable person to perform work under such an order and that arrangements can be made for him or her to perform such work;

Section 4(1b) which states

· the offender has consented to the making of such an order.

And finally under Section 4 (1c) which states that under this Act the court may review the order on the application of either the offender or a relevant officer.

I think it is only fair to say that these proposed changes will be important additions for improving public confidence in our sentencing policy, especially in regard to the use of community service orders.

The 2nd question that people repeatedly asked me while discussing this proposed amendment was whether this legislation will represent good value for money.

This should come as no surprise to us in the current economic position Ireland finds itself in. People not only want better legislation, they want legislation that will be value for money.

While the Explanatory Memorandum to the Bill states that there will be no additional costs in implementing the Bill and that the existing resources of the Probation Service will meet the expected increase in community service orders,

It is very important to recognise that the introduction and passing of this amendment will inevitably lead to greater demands being placed on an already over stretched probation service.

The Probation Service must continue to be adequately resourced into the future so that this increased volume of community service orders can be effectively administered.

That will be a challenge in the current economic climate but one which the government cannot cut corners on. Failure to adequately fund the probation service will undo everything this proposed amendment sets out to achieve.

Undoubtedly an increased use of community service orders would lead to savings in the overall scheme of things.

The Value for Money analysis of the community service order scheme, carried out by the Department of Justice and Law Reform in 2009, demonstrated that the use of community service in lieu of prison would produce significant savings.

The cost per community service order is estimated at approx. €4,295 per offender while the alternative costs of imprisonment are estimated to amount to approx. €27,478 per offender.

The state should not see these savings as a means to an end but as an opportunity to reinvest in crime preventions measures such as the juvenile diversion programme as well as increasing funding to the probation service to deal with the added number of reports this bill will create.

Apart from the financial benefits the community service order scheme will offer there are far more important factors to be considered while we consider this Bill.

As I outlined at the beginning of my speech the whole debate on whether community service orders help reduce recidivism is one which should be central to the Bill.

Again quoting the Probation Service report of 2009 in which it looks at the features and benefits associated with Community Service Orders we can see the social advantages of such a scheme.

The data was collected from 29 Senior Probation Officers, who were asked to identify the main benefits associated with the Community Service Scheme.

From their responses we can ascertain that the benefits of community service orders include:

• The offender remaining in work or education;
• The offender remaining part of both their family and the community;
• The community service scheme can provide an opportunity to learn new skills;
• As well as providing a means for the offender to make amends for their actions;
All of which will have a positive effect on the community and the offender.

However I do feel there is additional room for improvement in the proposed bill and maybe these are improvements which we can investigate in more detail as it progresses through the house.

For instance the presumption against imprisonment in section 3(1)(a) should be strengthened

By requiring the sentencing judge to not only consider imposing a community service order in lieu of imprisonment for a qualifying sentence

But by obliging him or her to give their written reasons behind a decision to imprison an individual before the courts rather than impose a community service order.

I know that the Irish Penal Reform Trust in their analysis of this proposed amendment share this view.

Can I also say that while I was reading this particular section of the bill I was struck by one glaring omission whose inclusion I feel should be given serious consideration.

Every crime has a victim and the effect that the crime committed has had on the victim should and must be a central consideration when a judge is leaning towards the imposition of a community service order rather than a prison sentence.

We need to consider the inclusion of victim impact statements as part of the process in determining whether someone is suitable for a community service order.

In conclusion it is fair to say that the community service order scheme, particularly for minor offences, can have many advantages.

For society, it is more cost effective than prison. For the offender it may mean the difference between a life of crime and a wakeup call.

For the community it provides a tangible benefit through works and services that may otherwise not be undertaken.

And it can benefit society through reducing recidivism rates among offenders.

For all of these reasons I welcome the proposed Bill but with the caveat that the suggestions I made earlier in relation to victim impact statements and redirecting any savings accrued by the implementation of this legislation be reinvested into crime prevention are investigated at committee stage.

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