A pioneering scheme which allows offenders to repay their debt to society instead of going to prison is to be extended.
The Nenagh Community Reparation Project in Tipperary has reduced re-offending rates among its participants from the national average of 70% to 26%.
Superintendent Jim Fitzgerald said the scheme would be now be extended to other district courts.
“We’ve found it to be a very good scheme but we’re not content to rest on our laurels. We want to move it on and pilot it in other areas,” he said.
People who plead guilty to offences in the District Court are offered the chance to sign a contract with a panel made up of local Gardai, a probation officer and members of the community.
The offenders have to take steps – including anger management courses or alcohol awareness classes – to deal with their own problems. They also have to repay the damage caused to the community.
The project has attracted broad community support in Nenagh due to the low rate of recidivism and the personal apologies which the participants often deliver to victims.
It was set up in 1999 after a local Judge, Michael Reilly, was inspired by an inspection of the judicial system in New Zealand.
Probation officer Carol Gleeson said the offenders generally used the skills they had to benefit the community.
“There was one chap who was a trainee carpenter and he made six window boxes for the Tidy Towns of a standard you couldn’t get in the shops. Another person agreed to give 50 hours to the Tidy Town committee but ended up joining them and doing far more,” she said.
Other offenders have worked with disabled people, created alcohol awareness posters for schools or provided sports training to young people.
After three months, the probation service writes a report to inform the District Court judge if the contract has been completed.
“The matter is struck out and the beauty about it is that they have a clean record,” said Ms Gleeson.
“I’ve only been involved a year but there’s been a number of people who’ve come back to me and said: ‘Thank you, that was a wake up call, and I’m glad I did it’.”
A study into the project, between 1999 and 2002, found that of the 39 people who took part, all but three completed their contracts and 26 of them did not re-offend.
Superintendent Fitzgerald said the next phase of the scheme would take in people with previous convictions.
“We’re moving it on a step further to test it. Even if only works with a person for six months, it’s still cheaper than sending them to prison.”
The annual running cost of the project is €30,000, which is less than half the €80,000 cost of keeping a person in prison for a year.
The probation service is working on a report into the project, which will be presented to the Crime Council next month.