Irish Penal Reform Trust

Welcome opportunity for renewed and sustained reform – IPRT congratulates Ministers on appointments

29th June 2020

The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) has today congratulated Minister Helen McEntee TD on her appointment as Minister for Justice. Until her recent appointment, Minister McEntee served as Minister of State for European Affairs and previously served as Minister of State for Mental Health and Older People, where she Chaired the National Taskforce on Youth Mental Health. IPRT is looking forward to working with the Minister on the implementation of evidence-led justice commitments in the Programme for Government (PfG).

IPRT also acknowledges the achievements made in the penal system since June 2017 during the tenure of former Minister Charles Flanagan TD. In particular, IPRT commends the former Minister’s recent early decisive action to reduce prison numbers during the COVID-19 crisis – an action which played a significant role in keeping Irish prisons free from confirmed COVID-19 infection.

IPRT welcomed the justice proposals contained in the PfG when they were initially published in draft format. Now that the Programme has been approved by party memberships, we are very encouraged that all the priorities we campaigned on in advance of the General Election become official Government policy. These commitments lay a solid foundation on which to develop evidence-based legislation and policies, supported by data and research. As well as delivery on the justice-related commitments (detailed here), the new government has a unique opportunity to ensure that progressive steps taken by Departments and agencies in response to COVID-19, particularly for marginalised communities, become longer-term realities.

There is growing understanding of the complexity of mental health and addiction issues in Irish society. With that comes an established consensus that people with mental health issues should be afforded appropriate mental health care. IPRT is confident that Minister McEntee’s strong record as Minister of State for Mental Health and Older People will help to drive progress towards the establishment of a cross-departmental taskforce on mental health and addiction and imprisonment, as committed to in the PfG. Minister McEntee has previously been vocal on the links between mental health and prison and the inappropriate nature of housing people with severe mental health problems in the prison system. We look forward to engaging with the Minister and the taskforce on how we can better divert people with mental health and addiction issues away from the criminal justice system at the earliest possible point, and to better support those who do come into contact with the system.

The formation of the new Government has also started the clock on Ireland’s long-awaited ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT). The PfG commits to ratification and implementation within “18 months of the formation of the Government”. This means that by the end of 2021, Ireland will finally be in a position to signal to people at home and on the international stage that it is serious about torture prevention. This will require strong cross-departmental collaboration across justice, health, children, disability, equality and other ministerial portfolios, with constructive engagement on the part of civil society.

IPRT has also congratulated Minister Roderic O’Gorman TD on his appointment to the new Cabinet position of Minister for Children, Disability, Equality and Integration. IPRT engaged with Minister O’Gorman constructively during his tenure as Green Party Justice Spokesperson and we look forward to continuing to engage him and his Department on the upcoming Youth Justice Strategy, the expansion of the Garda Youth Diversion Programme, ratification of OPCAT and other social justice policies.

Criminal justice and penal policy cannot be considered in isolation from wider social policy. Decisions made across Government have real effects on social disadvantage, offending behaviour and imprisonment in Ireland. These are systemic issues in need of a proactive whole-of-government approach, rather than a responsive approach when harm has been caused. To this end, it is essential that commitments in the PfG on housing and homelessness, mental health care reform, drug policy and others are met in tandem with commitments on penal policy. We look forward to engaging with all relevant members of Cabinet – particularly Minister McEntee – and all other stakeholders to build a safer society for everyone.

IPRT is hopeful that with the leadership and commitment of all agencies and stakeholders, real progress towards sustained reform can be made over the lifetime of the new Government and Dáil.

Respect for rights in the penal system with prison as a last resort.

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