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It's jail Oscar, but not as we know it - Pistorius freedom after 10 months makes a mockery of justice

The South African sentencing model may be an affront, but we would do well to remember the Irish system is equally flawed, writes criminologist John O’Keeffe.

John O'Keeffe Communications Director of the Garda Representative Association

THE NEXT TIME you find yourself – quite rightly – complaining at sentencing practices in Ireland, you would do well to consider aspects of the South African model.

That country’s version of manslaughter, “culpable homicide”, has turned out to be the day that Oscar Pistorius’ boat came in. A five-year jail term (itself risible) has now turned into a jaw dropping 10 months behind bars. Justice spokespersons in South Africa have been falling over themselves to advise that in fact he will now be on “correctional supervision,” where punishment has not ended but rather will “be meted out in the community.”

If you thought this might have at least meant an inability to have any of the benefits afforded those whom are at liberty, sorry to disappoint. Mr. Pistorius will probably now have to attend “compulsory treatment programmes” and sessions with social workers. Shockingly, he may even have to refrain from alcohol or drugs and will have to engage in work in the community.

It’s jail Oscar, but not as we know it

In this regard, his defence team had previously suggested that he could do four hours of domestic cleaning a week instead of a custodial sentence. One defence witness even suggested he work with disabled children as part of his “punishment”, as he was “keen to become involved in assisting children in whatever opportunity will present”.

It’s jail Oscar, but not as we know it.

It’s useful to remind ourselves of his crime. He killed his girlfriend in cold blood – doubtless due to his own catastrophic low self-esteem and rampant personality disorder(s). Most people would engage with professionals to try and alleviate such issues or, at least would not take a life in the process of self-loathing. Mr Pistorius instead took another option. He blasted his girlfriend to eternity leaving her family destroyed for the rest of their lives.

The South African justice system then rewards him for this act by releasing him after 10 months – then, to add insult to grievous injury, they engage in a bizarre reinterpretation of justice by attempting to equate his imminent “house arrest lite”, as the continuation of a jail term.

South Africa Pistorius Trial Pistorius pictured during his 2014 trial Source: AP/Press Association Images

Before we get too enraged about the dysfunctionality of the South African justice system we should consider our own. In Ireland if you are convicted of murder you receive the mandatory seven year minimum sentence – oddly still referred too as “life” – for a pedigree dog perhaps but not for a human. If, like most of those charged with homicide, you end up with a manslaughter charge instead this is where the party really starts. Don’t stab a prison officer and you will get an automatic 25% taken off your sentence.

By the way, you don’t have to earn this discount. Just remember not to start a prison riot.

So you may receive a five-year sentence for taking someone’s life but you can expect to be released three and three quarter years later. The really great part of all of this for Irish killers is that murder is notoriously difficult to prove in a court of law. That doesn’t mean of course that a murder wasn’t committed – it means it’s an evidential mire, so it attracts the Mi Wadi tag of “manslaughter” – and an even shorter sentence.

Meanwhile, victims’ families can only look on in abject horror as the person who has taken their child’s life serves a low single digit term.

Of course this could all be fixed tomorrow if successive governments had the wit. Begin with starting tariffs for those convicted of murder as they have in England and Wales – this gives the judiciary, victims, offender and the general public transparency and certainty. Provide judges then with robust judicial guidelines from which they can work. Start at 20, 25, 30 years or a whole life order and then allow judges discretion to move this sentence upwards or downwards, depending on the facts of each individual case.

Fairness

Once a minimum tariff is handed down, then some measure of fairness and transparency can be restored for both offender and victim.

In reality our own criminal justice system is not that different from South Africa’s in terms of its embarrassing rush to showcase what it believes are its exciting liberal credentials. The problem is that in our stampede to show what sophisticated and nuanced new societies we have become, we have inexplicably forgotten the victims and the general will of society.

The cultural narrative now in places such as South Africa and Ireland is that if we simply express our desire to treat victims of horrendous crimes and their families equally, we somehow diminish the rights of offenders. Nothing could be further from the truth. The reality is if we diminish the rights of one group, we do so for everyone.

Shame on us all.

John O’Keeffe is a Criminologist at Trinity College, Dublin and Chief Executive of AdVIC (Advocates for the Victims of Homicide)

Read: Oscar Pistorius is getting out of prison next week – 10 months into his sentence

Read: One man’s prison hell is another’s holiday park: Murderers like Graham Dwyer should not get perks

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About the author:

John O'Keeffe  / Communications Director of the Garda Representative Association

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