More probation staff needed for plan, says union

THE union representing members of the Probation Service has said more staff would be needed to cater for the Government’s plan for greater use of community sanctions for petty criminals.

The plan, outlined by Justice Minister Dermot Ahern, would see a greater push towards community service sanctions as a way of easing overcrowding in prisons.

It follows last week’s near riot at Mountjoy in which three prison officers were injured and revelations about the number of on the run prisoners.

Community Service Orders (CSOs) would help divert thousands of people sentenced for relatively minor offences away from the prison system.

However, David Williamson of the IMPACT Probation Service branch said that CSOs are currently under-utilised across parts of the country, and that more staff would be needed to ensure the service could handle the extra workload.

Last month the service received the green light to hire eight probation officers, two senior probation officers and three community service supervisors, but Mr Williamson said more resources would be needed.

He said of the minister’s plans: “If it was utilised it would create pressure.

“More resources are needed but not necessarily to deal with the issue of people getting community service.”

Instead, he said staff were under increased pressure in other areas, including dealing with higher risk offenders.

In principle, he said greater use of CSOs would be welcome, particularly given the geographical disparity in orders being handed down which exists at present. Judges in some areas avail of CSOs quite regularly, whereas other judges do not, he said.

Mr Williamson said there was also a need to “streamline” elements of the CSO sanction, particularly where people do not comply and need to be brought back to court.

Meanwhile, former governor of Mountjoy, John Lonergan, said the plan had “unlimited potential” but the situation needed “action, not rhetoric”.

He said the scope of current CSOs was “very narrow” and needed to be expanded, and said any alternatives to prison should be considered.

“IMPACT are dead right on the resourcing [issue],” he said. “There is no use having good ideas unless you resource them.”

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