Monday 10 December 2018

Raft of new laws won't tackle lenient terms for offenders such as Humphries

Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan. Photo: Justin Farrelly.
Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan. Photo: Justin Farrelly.
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

The Government is planning a raft of new laws to more closely monitor sex offenders - but none will address public concern over lenient sentences brought to the fore by the Tom Humphries case.

Under a new sexual offences bill undergoing pre-legislative scrutiny, it will be possible to subject convicted sex offenders to electronic monitoring.

The main provisions of the bill also include reducing the period within which a sex offender has to notify gardaí of a change of address from seven days to three, enhanced risk assessments of offenders, and permission for gardaí to inform members of the public about a sex offender in extenuating circumstances. Powers will also be given to the courts to prohibit sex offenders from working with children.

The two-and-a-half year term imposed on former 'Irish Times' sports writer Humphries for the defilement and sexual exploitation of a 16-year-old girl has been widely criticised.

Fergus Finlay, chief executive of children's charity Barnardos, was the latest figure to question the length of the sentence, which he described as "incredibly lenient".

However, Government officials said that while there was legislation planned in relation to sex offenders, it was not envisaged it would tackle concerns about sentence lengths.

They said Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan was precluded from commenting on sentencing, which was a matter for the judiciary.

The only person who can take action on the issue is the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), whose office has successfully appealed a number of sentences for sexual offences on the basis of undue leniency in the past. Senior gardaí expect DPP Claire Loftus to lodge an appeal seeking a higher sentence for Humphries, although opinion is divided in legal circles as to whether such an appeal would lead to a different outcome.

The Government introduced laws last February to specifically address grooming of children, which was a major feature of the Humphries case.

The Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017 provides for a prison term of up to 14 years for a person who uses information and communications technology to communicate with another person for the purpose of facilitating the sexual exploitation of a child.

Humphries could not have been tried for this offence as his crimes predated its enactment.

Instead, Humphries was prosecuted for sexual exploitation under the Criminal Law (Human Trafficking) Act 2008.

He admitted to four counts of sexual exploitation after using text messages to invite, induce or coercing the girl to engage in sexual acts.

Although this act allows for terms of up to life imprisonment, sentences actually handed down for grooming have tended to be much shorter.

Last year, for example, a Dublin man who set up a fake social media profile to convince a 15-year-old girl to come to his house and have sex with him was jailed for just five years with the final two suspended.

The man had pretended to be a 13-year-old girl to lure his victim.

Mr Finlay said the penalty contained in the new grooming law indicated "a sense in which sentences are a bit out of touch" at present. He told RTÉ's 'Today with Sean O'Rourke' show he suspected sentences "would be an awful lot higher" under the new legislation.

Irish laws have always provided for terms of no more than five years for the defilement of a child aged between 15 and 17.

The defilement charges Humphries faced were under the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2006, which was introduced after a previous long-standing statutory rape law was struck down by the Supreme Court for being unconstitutional.

Had the girl in the Humphries case been sexually abused by him when she was under 15, he would have faced a jail term of up to life in prison.

Irish Independent

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