Probation staff raise resource concerns over community return scheme.

4th May 2012

IMPACT’s Probation and Welfare Officers’ branch has welcomed the community return scheme announced by justice minister Alan Shatter TD on 1st May. Community return, which allows temporary release with community service for prisoners who pose no threat to the community, was introduced as a pilot last October. But the branch has also warned that adequate resources are needed to make the scheme work.

David Williamson, PRO for the branch explained: “We have always supported the use of robust and properly resourced community alternatives to custody. The community return scheme has the potential to address the overcrowding issue in prisons, while also having a positive influence on offenders and the rate of future offending at the same time.

“The use of community service as a restorative approach to dealing with offenders has been critically examined in this jurisdiction and beyond. A value for money report on community service in 2009 highlighted its positive benefits in Ireland. Ultimately, the long term benefits of this approach outweigh our current over-reliance on custodial sentencing” he said.

David said that for the scheme to work it must be properly resourced and supported, “That is vital if we are to make a successful transition from community service to a community service and return scheme. Unfortunately, the resources and supports necessary do not appear to have been put in place” he said.

He explained that between January 2009 and October 2011, staffing in the probation service had fallen by almost 10%, with the biggest reductions occurring at community service supervisor level, where the reduction had been 17.5%. These figures don’t include retirements since October 2011, and there is a bar on the use of locum staff.

David said, “At the same time, between 2008 and 2010, the number of community service orders issued by the courts rose from 1400 to over 1900. The proposal now is that, in addition existing increases in demand and workload, there will be an additional 400 prisoners a year released into the community return scheme and supervised by the probation service.

“While we welcome the community support scheme, we express the hope that it will not be undermined at the outset by a failure to ensure that the necessary resources and supports are in place. We need to consider how we will look back on the introduction of this scheme years from now. We want it to be a landmark scheme in progressive solutions to custodial sentences. We do not want to be counting the cost of failures because the necessary preparation wasn’t made.”