PAC | March 13, 2014
Department of Justice
Secretary General, Mr Brian Purcell, called and examined.
Deputy John Deasy: With the indulgence of the Chairman, I will ask a further question on training, education and development programmes for former prisoners and the reintegration of former prisoners in the community. One such programme, U-Casadh, is located in Waterford. How much money is the Probation Service allocating to these organisations? Does the Department intend to increase funding for these groups? Do these programmes work and would it be worthwhile investing more money in them?
Brian Purcell: What is the name of the project in Waterford?
John Deasy: It is called U-Casadh and one of many such programmes aimed at reintegrating former prisoners into the community.
Brian Purcell: There are obviously significant benefits from having schemes that facilitate the reintegration of prisoners into the community. One can only do so much work in terms of rehabilitation within a prison setting. As I know only too well from my time as head of the Prison Service, when offenders are going back into the community, the early stages after their return are the key period. Whatever progress can be made while they are in custody, it is important that supports are available on the outside. The Probation Service has a budget for these projects and in 2012 expenditure on community based organisations was approximately €10.3 million. The Department intends, in so far as our budgets allow us, to continue to support community based projects for offenders returning to the community.
John Deasy: The focus of the committee is on saving money and obtaining value for money. Does investment in rehabilitation programmes for offenders save money in the long run? The Department obviously has conducted cost-benefit analyses in this area and of some individual projects. What is Mr. Purcell's opinion of the investment it is making in rehabilitation projects? Do they pay dividends and would it be worthwhile investing more money in them? Has the Department carried out an analysis?
Brian Purcell: I believe the projects are paying dividends. To be honest, some of them are better than others and the Probation Service examines, audits and analyses the various projects to find out which ones it considers are delivering the greatest benefits. This will continue to be done on an ongoing basis.
"We have all read reports on the success the Scandinavian countries have achieved in this area."
John Deasy: Does the Probation Service make a case to the Secretary General for additional budgets if it finds they are needed?
Brian Purcell: While the Probation Service would look for extra budgets, obviously the Department's budgets are limited by the amounts allocated to us by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. We fund 45 community based organisations that are funded by the Probation Service throughout the country, which represents 28% of the entire Probation Service budget allocation. These organisations provide a range of services, depending on the areas in which they operate. I certainly believe one can obtain a significant benefit from investment in community run and community based programmes for prisoners. One of the measures we have introduced that has been quite successful has been the community return scheme where we have taken suitable prisoners and put them into the community. In other words, the prisoners concerned are able to serve the tail end of their sentences in doing community service. This project has proved to be very successful since it was introduced in late 2011. I see the way forward as continuing to invest as much as possible in those services in which the Probation Service is involved because this investment is showing benefits. For the first time in a long time we have seen a reduction in the number of people coming into custody. The investment we have made in this type of project in the community and through the Probation Service has been instrumental in that regard. I am not saying by any means that it is the only reason, but it is-----
John Deasy: Mr. Purcell has made a significant statement. He has said he believes these schemes are effective and that it is worth investing money in them. I do not know if the Comptroller and Auditor General has ever examined this issue or if his office has a role in analysing the expenditure the Department and the Probation Service allocates to these organisations in terms of its effect and the end result for the Exchequer in reducing the level of reoffending and the recidivism rate among those who enter these programmes compared to that among those who do not do so. Would it be worthwhile examining this issue? Would such an examination be helpful to the Probation Service or the Department?
Seamus McCarthy: We looked at the Probation Service in considerable detail, but, again, it was probably about ten years ago. I think one of the aspects we looked at was how they assessed which programmes worked and perhaps which were less successful. While it is something we could certainly return to at some point, it is not an easy process. One could end up case-making if one wanted to support this approach or one could end up making a case to abolish these organisations if one wanted to do this. There are so many variables in the equation that it is a significant challenge for the Department. However, it is something that needs to be done.
John Deasy: Mr. Purcell has stated these programmes have had a considerable effect on the recidivism rate. Given that a study of the programmes in which we are investing €10.3 million has not been conducted in the past ten years, surely we need to analyse them to ascertain how effective they are? All of these organisations keep track of the people who avail of their programmes and each of them will, therefore, have statistics. We have all read reports on the success the Scandinavian countries have achieved in this area. I do not know if there is anything more scientific that could be done to bolster our belief and faith in investing in this area.
Seamus McCarthy: The point about my office having looked at it about ten years ago is beside the point. The Department would be obliged, in terms of its spending on an ongoing basis, to do that type of evaluative work on a routine basis, not waiting for my office to come and do it.
Brian Purcell: We do that. We have a very close engagement with the Central Statistics Office. We have two members of staff from that office in the Department, one of whom has done a great deal of work with the Probation Service and would focus on the type of thing that works and the type of thing that does not. What I am saying is based on what we have seen ourselves. I would make the point, the Comptroller and Auditor General touched on it, that this is a very broad area and it is not always easy to pinpoint exactly what works and what does not work. In relation to the problem and the individuals one is dealing with, it is not necessarily one particular intervention that delivers the result. It depends on a myriad of different issues, most of which do not fall within the remit of the Department of Justice and Equality, or the Probation Service or the Prison Service. It also depends on a wide range of societal issues but also on a wide range of services provided by a wide range of other agencies.
John Deasy: Sure.
Brian Purcell: We try to evaluate what works best and what does not. That is something we will continue to do although, at the same time, I have to point out that we only have a limited amount of money that we can spend on these projects and we spend whatever we can.
John Deasy: That is what I am getting at. Notwithstanding the intangibles the Comptroller and Auditor General has mentioned - I accept all that and what he has said - I do not know if it is within his remit to take another look at this issue and, perhaps, assist the Department, notwithstanding the work those two individuals do within the Department, to see if this money is being well spent or if more money would result in a lower recidivism rate.