Let judges set minimum terms for murderers, says legal watchdog
JUDGES should be allowed to recommend minimum jail terms for murderers to serve before they are eligible for parole, Ireland's law reform watchdog has said.
The Law Reform Commission (LRC), which has produced a series of recommendations on sentencing in response to a request from the Attorney General, wants the compulsory life term for murder retained.
But it has recommended that new laws should be introduced to allow judges to recommend a specific minimum term, or tariff, to be served by convicted murderers.
The recommendations on minimum tariffs come as a new survey shows more than six out of 10 families with relatives who have been killed want minimum sentences for all unlawful killings including manslaughter and murder.
At present, judges cannot recommend minimum terms for murderers – it is up to the serving justice minister to decide when they should be released.
In Northern Ireland, judges can recommend a minimum term a life prisoner must serve before they can be considered for parole.
Barrister Tom O'Malley, a part-time LRC commissioner, said that under the present system it is the executive rather than the judiciary that decides the actual life term.
"That is not compatible with present-day constitutional values and human-rights standards," he said.
The commission, in a wide-ranging report, has backed calls for the Parole Board to be set on an independent, statutory footing to remove the power to release prisoners from the Government.
It also says that presumptive mandatory minimum sentences for certain drugs and firearms offences, which have increased prisoner numbers, should be repealed and not extended to other offences.
Mr O'Malley said the presumptive minimum terms are "quite illogical" as they are determined by the nominal street value of drugs rather than factors such as the level of involvement in a criminal enterprise.
The Government said the commission's recommendations will be considered in full and said that legislation is being prepared to place the interim Parole Board on a statutory footing which will help to "strengthen the board and improve its functions".
There are currently 308 prisoners serving life terms in Ireland, six of whom are women.
AdVIC, the advocacy group for families of victims of homicide, has welcomed the recommendation that judges should be able to recommend a minimum sentence for anyone convicted of murder.
But it says that the charge of murder by degree, whereby minimum tariffs are associated with homicide offences and consecutive sentencing for all unlawful killings and violent offences, needs to be introduced in Ireland.
"Minimum mandatory sentencing is critical if we are to achieve justice for victims, family and the wider community," said John O'Keeffe, special advisor to AdVIC which has campaigned for the introduction, in Ireland, of UK-style laws that have mandatory starting points for judges.
Life prisoners serve on average 17 years in jail, but that figure is under review following the release of killer Malcolm McArthur and the death of serial killer Geoffrey Evans in custody last year. Both men served some 30 years in prison.
One of the commission's key recommendations is that a Judicial Council, first mooted in 2000 in the wake of the Sheedy affair, should develop sentencing guidelines. Two years ago the Chief Justice, Mrs Justice Susan Denham, established a Judicial Council on an interim basis, but it has not yet been placed on a statutory footing.
The LRC Report on Mandatory Sentences will be launched tonight.