| 4.6°C Dublin

Judges to get powers on 'life' length

JUDGES will be given the power to recommend a minimum sentence for convicted murderers under plans being considered by the Government.

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

But now the Law Reform Commission (LRC) wants sentencing judges to have a greater say in the length of the jail term to be served.

The recommendation follows a study of the law at the request of the Attorney General.

The proposals will now be examined by Justice Minister Alan Shatter before deciding whether proposed amendments should be brought before the Cabinet for approval.

In the North, the sentencing judge in the recent murder trial of dentist Colin Howell, jailed for murdering his wife, handed down a minimum term of 21 years, while crucifix killer Karen Walsh, convicted of the murder of her elderly neighbour, was given a minimum of 20 years in jail.

The length of a mandatory life sentence for murder here has more than doubled in the past 16 years.

An analysis of jail terms has revealed that murderers are now serving an average period of 17 years and one month, compared with slightly over seven and a half years in 1984, under 12 years in 1994 and almost 14 years in the following decade.

Malcolm Macarthur, who was sentenced to life for the murder of nurse Bridie Gargan, is still in jail 29 years later, while Englishman Geoffrey Evans, convicted of the murder of two young girls in 1976 along with his accomplice John Shaw, has been in a coma for three years.

A convicted murderer can apply to the Parole Board for release after serving seven years of the sentence.

However, the LRC pointed out in its report, published yesterday, that the mandatory life sentence applied to all persons convicted of murder, regardless of his or her circumstances or the details of the case.

When it was being imposed, it was unclear how long the person would spend in prison, the report said.

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.

For those reasons, the LRC recommended that the mandatory sentencing regime for murder should be amended to allow the judge to indicate or recommend a minimum specific term of imprisonment, taking account of the circumstances of the offence and the offender.

The LRC also supported recommendations, made in 2000 and again last year, that the proposed Judicial Council should have the power to publish guidelines on sentencing.

And it came out against extending the mandatory minimum sentences, currently in place for certain drugs and firearms offences, to other crimes.

Instead, it recommended a review of the measure to take account of the fact that while it resulted in stiffer sentences for those crimes, it had not reduced the levels of criminality.

It argued that the introduction of a minimum 10-year sentence for possession of drugs with a street value of at least €12,700 meant that all cases were treated similarly, irrespective of the circumstances of the offender. Gang bosses had reacted to this regime by using couriers to transport and hold drugs.

The LRC also pointed out that mandatory sentences were said to have precluded judicial discretion and inevitably gave rise to disproportionate sentencing.

They also gave power to the prosecutors, rather than the courts, to decide whether a minimum jail term should apply.

Irish Independent