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For some, like vicious sex attackers, indefinite imprisonment should be an option

Concurrent sentences sometimes make a farce of justice, writes Aaron McKenna.

Image: Shutterstock/albund

A 47-YEAR-OLD man received eight life sentences during the week for vicious attacks on his then-girlfriend and her mother, both of whom he beat and raped in separate incidences. The sentences will all run concurrently, rather than consecutively, despite Mr Justice Patrick McCarthy remarking that it was one of the most serious cases of its type he had ever passed sentence on.

The convicted man, who cannot be named to protect the identities of his victims, had previously served time in prison for raping his daughter over a four year period. At the time of the latest attacks he was on bail for kidnapping and seriously assaulting his girlfriend the previous year.

The details of his assaults on the two women are harrowing. The man used extreme levels of violence and threatened to kill both his victims. He was stopped 2 hours and 40 minutes into his second attack, on the 60 year old mother of his girlfriend, when Gardai broke down the door of the house they were in, chased him into the garden and pepper sprayed him as he brandished a knife.

This man is quite clearly a persistently violent predator who has left many lives ruined in his wake: his daughter, his girlfriend and his mother have all seen convictions secured against him.

When released, there is no indication that the man will be anything other than a further menace.

‘Farce of justice’

That he has been handed eight life sentences that will run concurrent to one another is a farce of justice. A concurrent sentence is no sentence at all. You cannot live the same moment twice and the effect of any second or third or eighth sentence on the time you will actually serve is non-existent. Life sentences don’t even really mean life to begin with. At the very least this 47 year old man should be receiving his 8 life sentences to run consecutively, meaning that he would be 167 years old before being released.

In considering this and other cases of non-reformed predators there is a broader issue to discuss around preventative detention: keeping prisoners interned on the advice of psychological experts who assess their risk to society. The US Congress passed the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act in 2006, which allows the federal Bureau of Prisons to keep sex offenders in prison past their release date if it appears that they’ll have “serious difficulty in refraining from sexually violent conduct or child molestation if released.”

The idea of detaining prisoners beyond their sentences is a tricky one to get right. Justice works on the basis of issuing a certain penalty for a certain crime. When you detain someone indefinitely you are no longer punishing the crime that has occurred; you are detaining someone on the basis of something they might do. That’s a slippery slope.


Statistics from the UK Ministry of Justice show that 26.8% of sex offenders have a proven re-offence. That’s relatively low: 38.1% of those convicted of robbery go on to get caught again. Then again, the rates of reporting and successful conviction for sex crimes is generally low; and the nature of the crime is particularly damaging to the lives of others.

Though we naturally feel nothing but antipathy for sex offenders – in a “castrate them, lock them up and throw away the key” sort of way – we do have to acknowledge that with proper treatment, many can reduce the chances of their bringing harm to society. A group called Circles in the UK has been working with sex offenders in a holistic way, from prison to release with challenging therapy and supportive networks built for the offenders. They have witnessed an 83% reduction in reoffending among prisoners they work with versus the baseline. We may not like it, but working with offenders to get past their issues can be the best long term approach.

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Sex offenders are also a diverse group, who commit their crimes for a variety of underlying reasons that then colour their chances at reintegration into society. A persistently violent re-offender may be an unbalanced person with various mental health issues where another offender, while their crime is severe and unconscionable, might have fewer barriers to repairing whatever drove them to this sick behaviour.

We should not be releasing offenders who are more likely than not to go on and commit these sorts of life destroying crimes. They should, in the first place, receive sentences that will make it more likely than not they will die in prison; and where that’s not a dead cert, there should be a panel of experts who can decide to detain the person indefinitely in the most severe of cases.

It is an issue that must be approached with the utmost sensitivity and we must always err on the side of liberty when in doubt, but for certain types of offenders whose names may roll off the tongues in some cases we should ensure that a life sentence will not see them able to return to the streets to ruin somebody else’s.

Comments have been closed for legal reasons. 

More from Aaron McKenna: What the children’s hospital tells us about public sector decision-making >

Also: The EU has long passed its original purpose. Time for Brexit to kill it >


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