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Monday 22 January 2018

New website will track what sentences judges hand down

Dearbhail McDonald Legal Editor

JUDGES will have access to a new database of jail sentences from today, in the wake of calls for greater uniformity in prison terms handed down.

The Courts Service is to launch, a computerised sentencing database designed to help judges. It will also give lawyers, politicians and the public an insight into sentencing.

Also known as the Irish Sentencing Information System (ISIS), the website will provide information on sentencing -- including statistics; the details and circumstances of crimes; the outcomes of cases in court; their impact on victims; as well as synopses of rulings in the superior courts.

More than 1,000 crimes can be searched on the user-friendly database, which will also include the publication of academic articles on sentencing.

Judges enjoy a wide degree of discretion in sentencing and have been urged in the past by the Director of Public Prosecutions, James Hamilton, to work toward greater uniformity in sentencing in order to avoid the Oireachtas imposing more mandatory sentences.

Legal experts say the database could help judges in deciding what sentences to apply and could also enhance the often protracted political and public debate about the reform of sentencing.

"It is the extremes in sentencing that tend to get debated, either when a sentence is perceived to be too low or too high," said barrister Tom O'Malley, a senior lecturer in law at NUI Galway.

He serves on the ISIS steering committee chaired by supreme court judge Mrs Justice Susan Denham.

He said: "That is all very well, but when it comes to policy-making, it is very important to have evidence-based data.

"In this country, we don't realise the information deficit that we have on the criminal justice system."

Mr O'Malley said the database could dispel myths about how the courts treat certain crimes, such as drug dealing.


Figures from 2009 show, for example, that 51 10-year sentences were handed down in the Circuit Criminal Court, mostly for drugs offences.

There were also 235 sentences of between five and 10 years, more than half of which were accounted for by drugs cases.

"This suggests that judges in Ireland are not light on drugs sentencing," said Mr O'Malley.

Unlike sentencing information systems that operate in other countries, such as Scotland, where access is restricted to judges and others working in justice, will be open to the public.

Irish Independent

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