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Michelle Mulherin: 'We need to look at murder sentencing. Our law isn't fit for purpose'

The Law Reform Commission’s Report on mandatory sentences needs to be implemented urgently, writes Senator Michelle Mulherin.

Senator Michelle Mulherin

THIS CHRISTMAS SEES the eighth anniversary of the deaths of Sharon Whelan and her daughters Zsara and Nadia. They were murdered in their home in Kilkenny on Christmas day 2008 by Brian Hennessy.

Hennessy, who was convicted of the three murders, had his three life sentences reduced to a single life sentence on foot of an uncontested appeal. Hennessy was able to begin his parole process earlier this year after 7 years in prison and is eligible for release after 12 years.

Law isn’t fit for purpose

To me, this does not reflect the gravity of his actions in violently extinguishing the lives of a mother and her two children. It could be said that the law in this instance is not fit for purpose.

I am calling on the government to implement the Law Reform Commission’s Report on mandatory sentences as a matter of urgency. This report from 2013 recommends that where an offender is convicted of murder, and is therefore sentenced to life imprisonment, legislation should provide that the judge may recommend a minimum term to be served by the offender.

I believe that we need to give judges stronger powers when it comes to sentencing murderers. They should be allowed to set sentences that are proportionate to the seriousness of the crime.

The sentencing powers of judges are a crude instrument. Once the life sentence has been imposed, the duration of imprisonment is effectively out of the judges’ hands.

A life sentence shouldn’t mean an early release

shutterstock_465586604 Source: Shutterstock/corgarashu

As the law currently stands here, a sentence of life imprisonment means that the prisoner is subject to that sentence for the rest of his or her life. A prisoner serving a life sentence has no right to be released early at any stage.

That said the reality of the situation is that after a mere seven years in prison, the prisoner begins the parole process, essentially charting their path to freedom.

Currently a person sentenced to life imprisonment in Ireland is, on average, likely to spend 18 and a half years in prison before receiving any extended period of temporary release.

The Parole Board advises the Minister for Justice and Equality on the administration of longterm prison sentences. This includes advising the Minister on progress to date, the degree to which there has been engagement with the various therapeutic services and how best to proceed with the future management and administration of the sentence.

This process is not solely concerned with the release of a prisoner.

We need a tougher approach to sentencing

The Programme for Government lays the ground for implementing a tougher sentencing approach for offenders, but I believe that we need to look very closely at what constitutes a life sentence. The Government has been making strident progress in law reform, for example strengthening the law on repeat offenders.

Allowing judges to set minimum terms once a life sentence has been imposed would help give the families of victims some solace in the knowledge that the perpetrators of these heinous acts go to prison for a very long time.

Fine Gael is strengthening the rights of victims of crime and their families, through implementation of the EU Victims’ Directive and providing for a right of access for victims to information and protection.

We need also to end any ambiguity in relation to life sentences, which would further help victims and their families move on with their lives.

I believe that for society to function properly we need sentences that reflect the gravity of the crime. This will keep violent offenders off our streets and act as a deterrent to others.

Michelle Mulherin is a Fine Gael Senator.

‘Seven years seems like a lot – for us it’s nothing’: Murder victim’s brother welcomes parole reform>

Irish law around suspended sentences ruled unconstitutional>

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Senator Michelle Mulherin

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