Low-level crime to be dealt with outside of the courts
Low-level offenders will be given the option of avoiding court appearances and potential spells in prison under radical new measures set to come into force in the New Year, the Irish Independent can reveal.
A major scheme set to be approved by Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald will see adults who have committed relatively minor crimes being "diverted" from the courts system into educational, community and rehabilitation programmes.
The so-called Community Justice Intervention model is aimed at those who have committed offences such as public drunkenness, aggressive begging, illegal trading and criminal damage.
Ms Fitzgerald's plan, details of which have been seen by the Irish Independent, is aimed at dealing with low-level offences in a much more speedy fashion.
The scheme is likely to be led by the Probation Service and will also involve significant roles being given to An Gárda Síochána, the HSE, local authorities, business groups and the Department of Education.
Gardaí in particular have expressed frustration that low-level offenders are not being effectively dealt with due to the long waiting lists in the court system.
Department of Justice briefing documents state that in Dublin city alone, 9,000 low-level offences are recorded on an annual basis. But the documents warn that the average length of time taken to process such offences through the courts is at least 68 days.
When implemented, Ms Fitzgerald's plan will see gardaí accompany such offenders to a probation office where they will be dealt with. It's likely that the office will be in the garda station itself.
Offenders will be told they can avoid going though the courts system if they agree to undergo an educational or rehabilitation programme and/or a stint of community service.
Fines may also be issued.
Examples include addiction programmes for offenders who are consistently found to be drunk and disorderly in public.
A probation officer will, in certain cases, be assigned to the offender to ensure they are complying with the terms of their programme.
If a breach occurs, the offender faces being removed from the programme entirely and prosecuted in the normal fashion.
"This is a two-pronged approach: It's about dealing with low-level offences speedily while also addressing the underlying behavioural problem," said a Government source.
The programme, which is modelled on the justice system in the Netherlands, will initially be piloted in Dublin City in the New Year before being rolled out nationwide. In the Netherlands, it has resulted in a marked reduction in prisoner numbers since its implementation.
The Dublin City Business Association (DCBA), which has assisted a department working group in devising the scheme, last night said it has the potential to significantly improve living standards in communities.
"You have people who have lost their way and are caught up in webs they can't get out of," DCBA chief executive David Brennan told the Irish Independent.
"They need to be assisted, educated, rehabilitated. We believe if the necessary resources are put into the programme, it could benefit everyone.
"The problem with our current system is it doesn't work effectively. The principle of this scheme is helping people to help themselves and we believe society as a whole can benefit."