Review to look at use of suspended sentence for more serious offences
Law Reform Commission scrutinising sentencing for rape, manslaughter, assault
A major review is under way to look at whether suspended or partially suspended sentences can be used in connection with serious crimes.
The Law Reform Commission is examining whether there are more circumstances under which sentences can be suspended in such cases, meaning the offender can avoid jail time.
The commission is seeking views on what sort of "exceptional circumstances" can be taken into account when deciding whether to impose a suspended sentence for an offence which falls into the upper range of seriousness.
In an issues paper published today, the commission said a series of decisions of the appeal courts over the past 20 years determined that for certain serious offences a suspended sentence is not suitable and that other than in exceptional cases a custodial sentence is required.
These offences are manslaughter, rape, assault causing serious harm and serious tax and social welfare fraud.
However, the paper did note instances where suspended and partially suspended sentences were handed down for such offences.
An analysis by the commission of case law found there were certain exceptional circumstances which might justify suspending a manslaughter sentence. These included strong provocation, substantial diminished responsibility, mental illness or severe stress.
Manslaughter resulting in the killing of a family member after an unexpected row has occasionally been punished with a suspended sentence, the commission found.
The paper also noted that an analysis of rape convictions between 2013 and 2015 showed 70pc of sentences for rape were partially suspended.
In general only those who went to trial and refused to admit guilt received entirely unsuspended sentences.
Only three offenders have ever been given fully suspended sentences for rape - and two of these decisions were quashed following appeals by the DPP, with the offenders being resentenced and sent to prison.
The paper noted that a suspended sentence enables a court to mark the gravity of an offence, while at the same time allowing for the specific circumstances of the offender to be taken into account.
A suspended sentence means that a court will specify a term of imprisonment it considers appropriate.
It will then suspend the operation of the sentence on certain conditions for a specified period.
The most important of these conditions is that the offender should not commit any further offence during the operational period.
Typical conditions are that the person must agree to be under the supervision of the Probation Service. In some cases, they must agree to stay away from a certain person or area, or be subject to a night time house curfew.
The issues, often the subject of intense debate in legal circles, are among several areas of the law around suspended sentencing being examined as part of a major review by the commission.
It is expected to forward a report on the issue to the Government following a period of consultation.