Churchfield Community Trust in Cork City told the Oireachtas Justice Committee that a lot of the time the young men they work with — many ex-offenders — “need treatment rather than another sentence”.
The Oireachtas Justice Committee is currently conducting an examination of the Portuguese model following a three-day visit to Lisbon last month to see first-hand how it operated.
During a presentation to the committee, Churchfield project director Eileen O’Brien said addiction was the “common denominator” among the 18-30-year-olds they worked with.
She said they see first hand the “underbelly of addiction” and just how difficult recovery is for the young men.
The project has worked with 168 clients between 2008 and 2014, including 64 last year. These young men are referred to it by the Probation Service, the Prison Service and the Irish Association for the Social Integration of Offenders (IASIO).
Churchfield figures show that just 2% of these re-offended while engaged with the organisation.
Asked about the Portuguese model of not criminalising people for drug possession, Ms O’Brien said “the whole area needs to be looked at”.
She said a lot of their clients were in and out of prison and were often caught with drugs for their own use.
“They might be just at the point of moving on and then the charge comes up and they are back in court and back inside.”
She said this cycle can continue for quite a while.
“If we were to look at the Portuguese model and apply it here I do think it would have a positive impact, especially on young men that have already decided to look at themselves, to look at their relationship with substances and have already begun the journey of turning the corner and heading towards recovery rather than staying involved in that addiction loop.”
She added: “A lot of the time what lads need is treatment, rather than another sentence.”
Churchfield was set up by three religious orders — Presentation Sisters, Presentation Brothers and Christian Brothers — in 1994. It applies the SERVOL model, which uses a listening and non-judgmental approach to their target group, who are young men and ex-offenders, often with a substance abuse problem.
It runs a community employment scheme and has its own horticultural project and a well-known Cafe Garden in a Victorian glasshouse in Blackpool.
Ms O’Brien said they needed sympathetic employers in Cork to take clients on once they completed their scheme, but said such employers were “very few and far between”.
Deputy director Paul O’Donnell of the 21 clients who were post-release cases from prison, all but one successfully engaged with them and that 85% had positive outcomes.