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Monday 22 October 2018

Tough talk does not always lead to time in prison

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Stock photo
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

Irish judges by and large deal with the cases they encounter with a great deal of humanity and compassion.

This shines through in a report which analysed dozens of cases of dangerous driving causing death or serious injury over a four-year period.

In many of these cases it is clear that compassion was shown not just to the victims or their families, but also to the perpetrators in the form of lenient sentences.

Despite legislation allowing sentences of up to 10 years for dangerous driving causing death or serious injury, the average custodial sentences was found to be less than three-and-a-half years.

Defendants who entered guilty pleas and expressed remorse were quite often given suspended sentences.

In the vast majority of cases where sentences were suspended, speeding and the influence of alcohol or drugs were not factors.

But this was not always true, and there were instances where suspended sentences were handed down where alcohol was involved.

In one of those cases a five-year suspended sentence was replaced on appeal with just 240 hours community service.

The driver was not only under the influence of alcohol, but was also knowingly uninsured.

There were mitigating factors in that the driver became depressed and was unable to work due to injury.

But a case like this still begs the question as to where the line should be drawn between a custodial and non-custodial sentence?

What sort of message does the sentence send out to a young person who might be thinking of driving after consuming alcohol? Will they be more likely to do so if they believe the judiciary is soft on dangerous drivers?

It is clear from the report that while some judges made comments condemning dangerous drivers, this did not necessarily translate into stiff sentences. Reports such as this strengthen the case for proper judicial sentencing guidelines.

The Chief Justice, Frank Clarke, recently spoke of his desire for a well-resourced body to produce such guidelines, citing the example of the Sentencing Council for England and Wales, which has a budget of around €1.5m.

What seems more likely, as proposed in the Government's Judicial Council Bill, is the setting up of a sentencing information committee to collate information on sentences and disseminate information to judges. How well resourced this will be remains to be seen.

But even if there are guidelines, Mr Justice Clarke has argued they should leave significant discretion to judges.

Irish Independent

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