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Calls for 'nuance' after judge suggests reform of the law around jailing elderly people

A High Court judge called for the Irish Penal Reform Trust to take a look at the matter.

Image: Shutterstock/Ocskay Mark

LAST WEEK, WHILE sentencing a convicted serial child abuser to ten years in jail, a High Court judge said it was difficult impose the lengthy sentence on the 78-year-old man.

Mr Justice Paul Butler delivered the sentence, but suggested that the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) should carry out a study on the sentencing of elderly people.

In response to this call, the IPRT has welcomed a focus on the sentencing of old people but has said that it is a “nuanced” question and that more research is needed on the issue.

The IPRT said it is a small organisation and has no plans to carry out research along the lines of what was suggested by the judge, but said that the judiciary should consider it.

The IPRT did however point to a 2016 report it published about the experiences of old people in prison.

The report called for a debate about “the appropriateness of detaining old and seriously ill people in a prison environment, particularly those living with dementia or other terminal illnesses.”

The report highlights the health needs of terminally ill prisoners and their implications on cost and the training of staff.

But speaking about the judge’s comments, IPRT executive director Deirdre Malone said this does not mean keeping elderly people out of jail.

“The impact of sentencing within in a prison can be pretty severe when prisons are not equipped to deal with those type of medical needs,” Malone says.

At the same time, those comments were made in the context of sentencing for sexual offences, which are at the most serious end of the spectrum. Our position is imprisonment is the last resort, reserved for the most serious offences, so it’s a nuanced position and we wouldn’t say simply because you’ve reached a certain age you shouldn’t receive a prison sentence if the crime is sufficiently serious.

There other considerations, however. Such as, if an individual is so elderly or ill as to render themselves not a danger to others, whether there a value in keeping them in prison.

“Prison is expensive, it’s about €70,000 per person per year,” Malone points out.

I suppose the question that has to be asked is: if the person is elderly and infirm and physically isn’t presenting any risk and is suffering from severe dementia or age-related illnesses, is it appropriate or necessary in those circumstances for prison to be used?

“I don’t think you can answer them in the general. I think a case-by-case approach is probably necessary,” Malone adds.

The Irish Prison Service Strategic Plan 2016–2018 contained a commitment to implement a specific strategy for older prisoners which included the possibility of “developing a specific setting for older prisoners”.

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Rónán Duffy

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