Saturday 19 January 2019

Revealed: Prisoners serving life are now spending more time behind bars

New study will surprise those who mistakenly believe that life sentences are considerably shorter than they are in practice

Limerick Prison. Photo: PA
Limerick Prison. Photo: PA

Alan O'Keeffe

Life sentences have become a lot longer with prisoners now spending more than 20 years behind bars before release.

‘Lifers’ served less than eight years, on average, between 1975 and 1984 — but their time behind bars has tripled to an average of 22 years.

The tougher approach to prisoners serving life has been revealed by law lecturer Diarmuid Griffin.

His findings will surprise those who mistakenly believe that life sentences are considerably shorter than they are in practice.

“A punitive approach is certainly evident in the approach of parole decision-makers,” said Dr Griffin.

“The murder rate, the prevalence of knife and gun-related crimes, the public abhorrence of the crime, and the importance of retribution and general deterrence have all been cited by the Parole Board as relevant to its recommendations,” he said.

In the decade up to 1984, the average time served by life sentence prisoners was seven-and-a-half years, he said.

This almost doubled to 14 years between 1995 and 2004. And between 2012 and 2016, the average life sentence rose to 22 years.

Latest figures showed the numbers of prisoners serving life sentences dramatically increased from 139 in 2001 to 355 at present, consisting of 10 women and 345 men.

One in nine prisoners is serving a life sentence, said Dr Griffin, who lectures at NUI Galway.

A life sentence prisoner who is released can be sent back to jail at any time.

In the 15 years up to 2016, some 61 life sentence prisoners were released on parole, known as “full temporary release”. In the same period, 18 had their freedom revoked and were brought back to prison.

Dr Griffin interviewed three former Ministers for Justice and present and former members of the Parole Board for his new book Killing Time: Life Imprisonment and Parole in Ireland.

He outlined the pressures on politicians and parole boards and debunked the popular misconception about ‘short’ life sentences.

No prisoner can be released from a life sentence without the approval of the Minister for Justice.

Fear of public criticism has resulted in politicians being reluctant to approve the release of high-profile killers, he said.

“Life sentences are subject to the vagaries of politics,” he said.

“The release of life sentence prisoners is a decision made at the discretion of a politician, the Minister, following the advice of the parole board, a group of individuals appointed by the minister,” he said.

“The potential for adverse publicity, political criticism and personal electoral consequences were cited as negatives by former ministers,” he said.

“Yet it is a political risk that politicians have been reluctant to divest themselves of,” he said.

He cited the case of double killer Malcolm MacArthur. Jailed in 1982, MacArthur was recommended for release after 22 years, but remained in jail for 30 years before his release in 2012 by then Minister Alan Shatter.

Dr Griffin said his research identified “the need for independence from politics” has been a key issue.

A proposed new law, introduced in the Oireachtas by Fianna Fail’s Jim O’Callaghan, the Parole Bill 2016, is “a significant step towards parole reform” in proposing to set up a decision-making body independent of the minister, he said.

The private member’s Bill, which has the support of the Government and is currently at report stage in the Dail, proposes that a life sentence prisoner will not be eligible for parole until a minimum of 12 years has been served, up from the current minimum of seven years.

“One of the key things that reform should bring about is greater consistency in terms of time served,” Dr Griffin told the Sunday Independent.

“We need to be more consistent as to the length of time a murderer should serve in prison.

“One of the problems with the mandatory life sentence for murder is that it does not afford the judge discretion in distinguishing between the various different types of murder.

“There are a lot of different types of murder, lots of different motivations or aggravating or mitigating factors which the judge can’t take into consideration because a life sentence is mandatory for murder, which is problematic,” he said.

In practice, the shortest time served by a life sentence prisoner in recent times was 13-and-a-half years which was an “exceptional” case which occurred in 2013, he told the Sunday Independent.

The longest serving lifer, who was jailed for killing a farmer during a robbery in 1964, is Jimmy Ennis. Believed to be now aged in his late 80s, he spent 52 years in prison until being granted temporary release around two years                                                                ago.

For decades, he had refused to apply for parole and preferred to continue working in the garden of Shelton Abbey open prison.

Englishman John Shaw is currently Ireland’s longest serving prisoner. He raped and killed two young women with his accomplice Geoffrey Evans in 1976. Both were sentenced to life.

Shaw has spent 42 years under lock and key; Evans died behind bars in 2012.

The Parole Board’s paramount consideration is the safety of the community.

Dr Griffin said the main principles considered by the board include:

  • The reasons and recommendation of the trial judge.
  • The nature and gravity of the offence.
  • The degree of responsibility of the person.
  • The position of the victims.

The average prison time served by lifers before release in the UK is 18-and-a-half years and in Denmark it is 17 years.

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