LESS than one in five dealers caught with serious quantities of illegal drugs is being given the full "mandatory minimum" 10-year sentence, the Irish Independent has learned.
Low-level drugs couriers or "mules" are instead those hardest hit by the draconian sentencing laws.
The Government introduced the tough laws, designed to put major drug operators behind bars, in the wake of the 1996 murder of crime journalist Veronica Guerin.
But judges are afforded an opt-out mechanism from the 10-year sentence if there are "exceptional and specific circumstances", such as early guilty pleas and co-operation with gardai.
Last year, just 15 out of the 203 convictions for possessing "commercial" quantities of drugs -- worth €13,000 or more -- were given a sentence of 10 years or more. Almost half of the people convicted of offences under section 15A of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977 were instead jailed for five years or less.
Experts, including the Law Reform Commission, have suggested that the 10-year rule has merely forced drugs barons to change their practices to ensure they are not caught.
Since 2007, 889 people have been convicted of the sale or supply of more than €13,000 worth of drugs, but only 155 -- or 17pc -- received a 10-year term.
And many of them are drug addicts or are handling drugs to pay off debts, rather than key drug gang leaders.
The proportion of convictions receiving the mandatory 10-year sentence has decreased from 24pc in 2007 to 7pc last year.
However, between 2008 and 2009 alone, there was an 80pc increase in the number of people serving between three and five years for drug possession.
The startling figures come in the wake of a government-commissioned report, which recommended a review of the system of mandatory sentencing for drug trafficking.
The Law Reform Commission has said in a recent consultation that prison populations have increased with the introduction of the mandatory minimum term, with no major decrease in drug trafficking. The commission suggested that drug couriers were swelling prisons, whilst the main drug operators and chiefs were still at large and continuing the work.
Last night, Liam Herrick, executive director of the Irish Penal Reform Trust, said that the impact of the 10-year mandatory sentence could be measured by the steady increase in the number of people serving prison sentences of five years or more over the past 10 years.
Justice Minister Alan Shatter, who has publicly questioned the value of mandatory minimum sentences, said last night that he would consider the matter of such sentences in the light of the final recommendations of the Law Reform Commission.