McDowell to initiate alternatives to custody

A SYSTEM of hostels, halfway houses and support projects for offenders will be set up as an alternative to custody, according to Justice Minister Michael McDowell.

Mr McDowell was speaking yesterday as he presented certificates to offenders who had completed an intensive probation scheme, called the Bridge project.

He said the project, based in Dublin's north inner city, was a model for the type of schemes he wanted to establish. "Bridge is a wonderful success. I believe very, very strongly the money the department spends supporting this service is money well spent indeed.

"The Probation and Welfare Service and myself are in discussions and our aim is to develop as quickly as we can a whole series of hostels, halfway houses and support projects such as Bridge in order, first of all, to offer an alternative to custodial sentences, and secondly, in relation to offenders, to get them into the community on an equal basis, firing on all cylinders."

He added: "We don't want to just bang the prison door when they go out, we want to make sure they don't go back there."

Bridge chairman Peter Murray said Bridge was set up in 1991 as an alternative to custody for those who had committed serious crime, including violence, robbery and murder.

He said: "This is not some effort to placate people. This is a serious attempt at redressing criminal behaviour. When they've successfully completed this programme they've had to face the hardship of their criminal activities in a group session, be open and convince some very hard people they have committed themselves to an alternate life."

The Bridge programme brings together a host of agencies, including the Probation Service, the City of Dublin VEC, FÁS, the judiciary, An Garda Síochána and social partners.

One of yesterday's recipients, who preferred to remain anonymous, said the course had helped him address his anger and understand what he had done.

"It has been a tough programme. It's not nice to see how many people I have hurt, through what was, I realise now, my selfish and thoughtless actions."

Another participant said the course had given him direction and helped him overcome his "savage addiction" after coming off a seven-year jail term.

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