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Use of suspended sentences for sexual offences decreased over last decade

White-collar crimes and child offenders were given particular consideration in a new report from the Law Reform Commission.

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THE USE OF suspended sentences for sexual offence cases dropped significantly between 2006 and 2017, a new law reform report has found.

Sanctions imposed by the Circuit Court for sexual offences shifted away from the use of suspended sentences over the 11-year period.

In 2006, 37% of sanctions imposed for sexual offences were suspended, which fell to 10% in 2017.

A suspended sentence is one which is suspended for a defined period of time on the condition that the offender abides by a certain set of conditions.

If a person who is given a fully-suspended sentence follows the conditions, they may ultimately not be taken into custody.

The use of sentences with immediate imprisonment for sexual offences also decreased from 40.9% in 2006 to 26.2% in 2017.

The findings are published today in a new report from the Law Reform Commission on suspended sentences.

The LRC is an independent statutory body that reviews the law in Ireland and makes proposals for reform.

The report found that the use of suspended sentences by the Circuit Court had decreased for specific offences, including sexual offences, assault, drugs and firearms offences, robbery or fraud, and road traffic offences.

Suspended sentences dropped from 40% of all sanctions in 2006 to 17% in 2017.

Child offenders

The LRC has advised that the practice of not employing suspended sentences as a sanction for child offenders should be continued.

It recommended that the Children Act 2001 should not be amended to provide for suspended sentences of detention in whole or in part for underage offenders.

The reason for not using suspended sentences for child offenders is that there is a need for the offence and the punishment to happen closely together so that the child can understand the link between the two events. 

Additionally, the detention of a child offender is seen as a measure taken for the child’s welfare. As a result, if a detention is in the child’s best interests, it is seen as “unjust and inappropriate” to suspend or withhold it.

The LRC said that the objective of a detention period for child offenders compared to imprisonment for adult offenders is “fundamentally different”.

“Detention is informed predominantly by welfare considerations, whereas imprisonment is primarily punitive,” the LRC said.

The LRC recommended that the law on sentencing of children convicted of murder must be clarified in any general review of the Children Act 2001, including the sentencing of adults who are convicted of murder that was committed when they were under 18.

The LRC said that the Children Act 2001 does not give significant guidance on how to approach sentencing child offenders convicted of murder who are still under 18 when they are convicted or sentenced.

Although the mandatory sentence of life imprisonment cannot be applied to child offenders, the court’s power to impose a period of detention for children has been used to “sentence a child convicted of murder to life if the court deems it appropriate in the circumstances”.

The report referenced the sentencing of the underage Boy A and Boy B in 2019 for the murder of Ana Kriégel.

Boy A, who was convicted of murder and aggravated sexual assault, was sentenced to life with an in-built review after 12 years.

Boy B, who was convicted of murder, was sentenced to 15 years with a review after eight years.

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White-collar crimes

The report looked specifically at the use of suspended sentences for white-collar crimes and recommended that no separate sentencing regime should be used for white-collar offending.

White-collar crimes are those committed by corporations and people involved in corporate life, including financial crimes such as fraud, competition offences and insider trading.

It also includes environmental crime, health and safety offences, revenue offences, and agriculture and sea fisheries offences.

Some submissions during the consultation stage of the report raised concerns that the social position of white-collar offenders could allow for them to be handled differently than other types of offender.

The LRC acknowledged that the issue does “raise potential problems in terms of the constitutional requirement of equality before the law”.

“However, a separate sentencing regime in which these personal mitigating factors are given less weight in a white-collar context would raise similar issues from an equality perspective,” it said.

“Such a situation would also be difficult to reconcile with the other constitutional requirement that an offender’s personal circumstances always be given due weight in setting the appropriate punishment.

“Finally, such an approach would run counter to the principle that prison should be used as a sanction of last resort for non-violent first-time offenders.

“However, on the other hand, it is imperative that the societal harm caused by white-collar offending should always be reflected in the sentence imposed.”

The LRC recommended that a “balance” should be struck between the white-collar offenders’ personal circumstances and meeting the gravity of an offence with an appropriate sanction.

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