Our criminal justice system is about more than just crime and punishment; it cannot be focused solely on society exacting retribution from those who are found guilty by the courts. We must hold those convicted of offences to account in a manner proportionate to the crime of which they have been found guilty and in doing so we must ensure that as a society we recognise the impact that each crime has had on its victim. Whilst achieving these aims our courts must also have the option of providing those who come before them of the opportunity for reform, and where the crime is of a minor nature this should be provided without necessarily facing a term of imprisonment.

At present the options available to a court range from the use of the court poor box to community service orders and imprisonment. I welcome this Bill laid before the house by the Minister for Justice as an opportunity to expand the use of Community Service Orders. These are provisions which not only deal with punishment but enable those convicted to give something tangible back to society and allow wider society to see the positive impact that a progressive criminal justice system can have.

In 2010 the total number of Community Service Orders issued by the courts was 1,949; representing a mere one third of the overall capacity available for the use of these orders. We must look to the reasons why these orders have not been fully used.

The Probation Service’s Value for Money and Policy Review Report published in October 2009 shows that 29 Courts account for 80% of the total number of Community Service Orders issued. This coupled with the fact that the Community Service Orders are being operated at 33% of capacity clearly shows that these orders are being underutilised. There a number of possible reasons for this, it could be that practitioners are requesting the courts to grant these orders, it could be that the judiciary has not been made aware of the spare capacity within the system or it could be that many of those involved in the courts do not see the positive impact that these orders can have on the individuals involved and the wider benefit to society.

This Bill proposes that the courts must consider imposing a Community Service Order where it has deemed that the appropriate term of imprisonment would be 12 months or less. I welcome this proposal as the obligatory nature of this provision will undoubtedly increase the use of Community Service Orders.

Statistics from the Courts Service shows that in 2006 there were 4,607 committals to sentences of 12 months or less, in 2009 this number had increased to 9,216 – doubling in four years. This increase occurred at the same time as the total number of committals by the courts increased from 5,802 to 10,865. The increase in committals during that period was not matched by an increase in available prison capacity, further burdening a system that was already struggling to cope. If we are to avoid the having an unwanted revolving door prison system, short of increasing capacity – something that has a long lead-in time – our only option is use of alternatives to imprisonment where deemed appropriate by the courts.

The Bill before us today provides us with an opportunity to increase the use of non-custodial sentences and to reduce the burden of over-crowding within our prison system. If the Community Service Order system was used to its full capacity it could take 3,800 prisoners out of our jails, immediately reducing the problem of over-crowding. As the Minister outlined this Bill is cost neutral and given the financial constraints under which this government, and all of Irish Society, have been forced to operate, opportunities to make improvements from within our existing resources must be grasped and used to maximum effect.

Breakdown of figures for Juvenile Offences in Cork.

Shows that it is predominantly young men rather than young women who offend – except for shoplifting 49-51.

These young men need to become active citizens participating in society, to understand and take ownership of local projects. They are not choosing to partake in constructive activities; rather they are choosing to partake in activities that have a negative impact on them and society. If these young men are sentenced to serve time in prison then they will only be exposed to further criminal activities, they will become less likely to return to being active citizens playing a positive role within our local communities. Unfortunately these young men are not choosing to participate in positive activities so as legislators we must ensure that the mechanisms are in place to give them that opportunity. The enhanced provisions of the Criminal Justice (Community Service) (Amendment) Bill will ensure that the option is available to the courts to show these young men the positive impact of participating in community activity that not only benefits society but also rewards those who choose to participate.

The benefits of Community Service Orders are not only avoiding imposing custodial sentences and thereby avoiding the exposure of minor offenders to the harsh realities of life in prison. The Orders can also provide those convicted individuals with an involvement in civic and charitable projects, enabling them to take ownership of projects and to contribute positively to society. Neither are the benefits of CSOs confined to those carrying out community service, our wider community also derives tangible benefits.

In Cork City and County at any one time there are between 320 and 350 people carrying out community service. These people are working on projects that produce both visible and social benefits to our area. The Graffiti Removal project that was piloted in Dublin has been rolled out to Cork and it is currently being used in the designated Rapid Areas of Togher and Mahon. This project is run in conjunction with the local Rapid Co-Ordinators and its success has meant that a pilot scheme to remove graffiti in other parts of the City is now being considered.

Both Cork City Council and Cork County Council work closely with the Probation Service in Cork to ensure the successful completion of works which would not otherwise be funded or carried out. To date this has included litter removal, foreshore cleaning, cutting briars and general cleaning. So to have people serving CSOs assisted many of the local tidy town associations in preparing streets and amenity areas for the competitions. Local schools benefit from CSOs through an initiative to paint schools in the areas.

These benefits are not only confined to state funded bodies, charitable organisations are also benefiting from the wide use of CSOs in Cork. One of the local chapters of St. Vincent de Paul Society obtains assistance from up to eight people carrying out community service which enables it to carryout it’s clothes recycling project. A similar task is undertaken by participants working in conjunction with the Greater Chernobyl Cause in Togher. And the elderly of Cork also benefit with the provision of kindling, made from broken down pallets by the Togher Community Service Project, supplied to them when they are receiving meals on wheels.

The Criminal Justice (Community Service) (Amendment) Bill will ensure the expanded use of Community Service Orders which provide much benefit to those participating in the schemes and to wider society. That such a positive impact can be achieved by a cost neutral proposal is to be welcomed. When this Bill is enacted as legislation I would encourage all parties involved within the Criminal Justice system to ensure that Community Service Orders are used to their maximum effect and benefit.