The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) and Mental Health Reform (MHR) welcome the joint announcement (02 March 2021) by the Ministers for Justice and Health, and Ministers of State with responsibility for mental health and the national drugs strategy, of the establishment of a High Level Taskforce to consider the mental health and addiction challenges of persons interacting with the criminal justice system.
MHR and IPRT view the appointment of former minister Kathleen Lynch as Independent Chair of the Taskforce as a critical step to ensure that its goals are progressed. Other positive and important aspects include its cross-agency membership, focus on diversion from the criminal justice system, emphasis on post-release services, and the firm commitment to publication of a costed and time-lined implementation plan by end 2021.
However, both IPRT and MHR emphasise the critical importance of ensuring that this Task Force is allocated adequate staffing and resources from both Health and Justice to deliver its remit, that it takes a rights-based approach, and that plans to consult with a range of stakeholders include people with direct lived experience of mental health difficulties and organisations which advocate for improved mental health outcomes.
Fiona Coyle, CEO of Mental Health Reform noted:
“We know that the State is currently failing many in the criminal justice system with mental health difficulties. Strengthened coordination, improved referral pathways and resolving funding inadequacies are some of the key barriers that this Task Force has the opportunity to address. This ambitious mandate must be matched by resourcing. We believe that the voice of the prisoner and their family, friends and carers must be at the heart of all of the Task Force’s work”.
Executive Director of the Irish Penal Reform Trust, Fíona Ní Chinnéide said:
“Too many people with disabilities, mental illness and in psychiatric distress are held for long periods in completely unsuitable conditions in prison. This failure by the State to provide appropriate care has been called out by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and the Chief Inspector of Prisons, among many others.”
The announcement is therefore very positive, but it is critical now that the Taskforce is given the staffing and resources it needs to meet its goals, that it takes a rights-based approach, and that the emphasis is on diverting people with mental health challenges away from the prison system. This is an ambitious time-frame but urgent action was needed and the time-line must be met.