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Report: Judges should be able to impose minimum sentence for murder

The report also recommends the Parole Board should be established on an independent statutory basis.

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THE MANDATORY LIFE sentence for people convicted of murder should be retained, a new report on sentencing in Ireland recommends.

The Law Reform Commission’s Report on Mandatory Sentences will be launched by Mr Justice Patrick McCarthy, judge of the High Court, this afternoon.

It contains the commission’s final recommendations in response to a request from the Attorney General to examine the law on mandatory sentences.

Analysis

The commission noted that the only completely mandatory sentence in Ireland is the life sentence for murder, and that judges have no discretion here and must impose a life sentence.

They do not have the power to suggest any specific minimum sentence, unlike in other jurisdictions (such as Northern Ireland).

They also examined other “presumptive” mandatory sentences, such as those introduced in 1999 for certain drugs offences and in 2006 for certain firearms offences. The drugs offence law states that 10 years should be imposed where the “street value” is over €13,000, but also allows for a lesser sentence in exceptional and specific circumstances.

Main recommendations

The report contains a number of recommendations. Included in these are that the commission supports previous recommendations that a Judicial Council should be able to develop and publish suitable guidance or guidelines on sentencing.

It also recommends that the mandatory life sentence for murder should be retained.

Where an offender is convicted of murder, and therefore sentenced to life imprisonment, the commission recommends that legislation should provide that the judge may recommend a minimum term to be served by the offender.

The commission also recommends that the Parole Board should be established on an independent statutory basis, and welcomes the Government’s proposal to introduce legislation bringing about this effect.

Drugs

When it comes to the presumptive sentencing regime that applies to certain drugs and firearms offences, the commission said this should be repealed and should not be extended to any other offences.

It said this regime has led to the adaptation of the illegal drugs trade to the sentencing regime by using couriers to hold and transport drugs. They also said that these relatively low-level offenders, rather than those at the top of the illegal drugs trade, are being apprehended and dealt with under the presumptive regime.

In addition, there are a high level of guilty pleas in order to avoid the presumptive minimum sentence, and an increase in the prison system comprising low-level drugs offenders.

The commission also recommends that a more structured, guidance-based sentencing system would provide an appropriate alternative to these provisions.

It said that the existing legislation concerning mandatory sentences (and, where relevant, presumptive sentences) that applies in the case of second and subsequent offences should also be repealed and should not be extended to any other offences.

The commission recommends that the more structured, guidance-based sentencing system would provide an appropriate alternative to these provisions.

Response

In response, AdVIC, the advocacy group for families of victims of homicide, has welcomed the report and its recommendation that judges should be able to recommend a minimum sentence for anyone convicted of murder.

It said is disappointed, however, that the commission has not recommended mandatory sentences for other unlawful killings.

The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) also welcomed the recommendations. IPRT Executive Director Liam Herrick said mandatory sentencing does not act as a deterrent.

Instead, it has increased the number of low-level offenders serving lengthy sentences in prisons, at great expense to the taxpayer with no positive impact on crime rates.

However, the IPRT described as “regrettable” the Commission’s decision to row back on its previous recommendations to repeal the mandatory life sentence for murder included in its 1996 Report on Sentencing.

IPRT believes that, even for murder, judges should be able to distinguish between more and less heinous offences.

While there may be some merit to a tariff system as recommended by the Law Reform Commission as part of a wider process of reform, IPRT considers the need for an independent parole process as the more urgent issue.

Read: One in five burglars gets five years or more in jail>

Read: Report looks at ‘individualised and discretionary nature’ of Irish sentencing>

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