Thursday 18 December 2014

Minimum jail time for murderers legislation put on hold

Published 14/07/2014 | 02:30

Frances Fitzgerald,TD,the Minister for Justice and Defence. Picture: Tom Burke
Frances Fitzgerald,TD,the Minister for Justice and Defence. Picture: Tom Burke

THE Government has stalled for two-and-a-half years on a plan to give judges power to recommend a minimum sentence for persons convicted of murder.

The radical proposal to beef up the powers of the judiciary was made by the Law Reform Commission (LRC) in January 2012.

At the time, the Department of Justice said the recommendation would be studied and a decision reached on whether to amend the legislation to pave the way for the change.

But Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald is still awaiting a final report from her advisers on sentencing policy.

The courts must impose a life sentence for murder under existing legislation but cannot indicate what "life" should mean. The release of a murderer from prison is currently an issue for the Parole Board and, ultimately, the minister.

However, the LRC wants sentencing judges to have a greater say in the length of the jail term to be served.

Analysis

An analysis of jail terms has revealed that murderers are now serving an average period of 18 years, compared with slightly over seven-and-a-half years in 1984, under 12 years in 1994 and almost 14 years in the following decade.

The Irish Prison Service (IPS) pointed out that there is no remission on life sentences.

Some "lifers" have been in custody for more than 30 years and latest figures show there are currently 74 of them under supervision in the community.

The IPS said 29 life sentenced prisoners were granted release between 2005 and 2013 and placed under the supervision of the Probation Service.

Arguing its case for new powers for judges, the LRC pointed out that the mandatory life sentence applied to all persons convicted of murder, regardless of his or her circumstances or the special details of the case.

When it was being imposed, it was unclear how long the person would spend in prison and it also questioned how a decision on release by the minister, without any input from the sentencing court and often many years after the case had been heard, could be compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.

The LRC also supported the view, expressed in 2000 and again in 2011 that a judicial council should have the power to publish suitable guidelines on sentencing.

 

Irish Independent

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