Expanded spent convictions regime would ‘reduce reoffending and improve outcomes’

Senator Lynn Ruane
Senator Lynn Ruane

An expanded spent convictions scheme in Ireland would help to reduce reoffending and improve socio-economic outcomes in working class communities, an Oireachtas committee has heard.

The justice committee today heard evidence on spent convictions from Senator Lynn Ruane; Fíona Ní Chinnéide, executive director of the Irish Penal Reform Trust; Dr TJ McIntyre, law lecturer at UCD Sutherland School of Law; and Niall Walsh, manager of the Pathways Centre.

Senator Ruane’s bill, the Criminal Justice (Rehabilitative Periods) Bill 2018, would expand Ireland’s spent convictions regime, in particular by removing a rule whereby only one conviction outside of minor driving and public order offences can become spent.

The private member’s bill passed the second stage in the Seanad with unanimous support in February, and Senator Ruane is optimistic that it will clear the committee stage this autumn.

Speaking to the committee today, she said Ireland’s existing spent convictions regime, introduced in 2016, was “a welcome first step” but is “unfortunately not fulfilling its rehabilitative aims”.

Senator Ruane said: “It is extraordinarily limited in scope and in practice and is simply not accessible to former offenders who need and deserve to benefit from its provisions.

“Of particular note is the limitation placed by the effective single conviction rule, where only one conviction outside of minor driving and public order offences can become spent and the rehabilitative period you have to wait before your conviction is spent being set at a blanket seven years for all crimes, no matter how long or short your sentence was.

“My bill therefore seeks to expand fairer access to spent convictions in four ways, by firstly increasing the length of custodial and non-custodial sentences that are eligible to become spent, by removing the single conviction rule from the current Act, by making the waiting period, or rehabilitative period, proportional to the length of your sentence and by creating a more generous regime for young adults between 18-23 in light of their higher rehabilitative needs.”

She said the current limits have “a disproportionate impact on marginalised, poorer and working class communities”, leaving the law open to criticism as “a law written for the middle classes”.

In her evidence, Ms Ní Chinnéide said there was a case for allowing all offences to eventually be able to become spent, but acknowledged that this “would not be palatable” to many people.

She highlighted the findings of “time to redemption” research indicating that previous convictions are ineffective in predicting future offending after a period of seven to ten years has passed.

Ms Ní Chinnéide added that the spent convictions regimes across Ireland and Britain were “starting from a very, very conservative place”. Her colleague Michelle Martyn, IPRT’s senior research and policy projects manager, emphasised the need to examine evidence from jurisdictions like France and Sweden, “rather than just England and Northern Ireland”.

Dr McIntyre, an expert in privacy, data protection and criminal law who chairs the civil rights NGO Digital Rights Ireland, warned the committee that an expanded regime may be necessary for Ireland to meet its obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights.

An equivalent rule to the single conviction rule in England and Wales and Northern Ireland had been found by the UK Supreme Court this year to be contrary to Article 8 as tending to lead to arbitrary and disproportionate results, he said.

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