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By any standards, this verdict on garlic crime stinks

THE mind boggles. There are bankers who cost this country billions, priests who raped children and politicians who took massive backhanders all safely walking the streets of Ireland today.

Meanwhile, a man has received a six-year jail sentence at the Dublin Circuit Criminal Court for the heinous crime of underpaying customs duty on imported garlic.

There may be some zany logic behind this -- but as far as most ordinary people are concerned, it's yet another example of how our legal system seems to be completely divorced from reality.

Even the judge who sentenced Paul Begley described him as "a decent man".

There is absolutely no suggestion that he is a physical threat to anyone. He makes regular donations to charity and has been paying off his debt to the State at a rate of €33,000 a month for the last two years.

So what is the point of taking this man away from his wife and three children and locking him up in a prison cell, where he will actually cost the taxpayer around €80,000 a year?

The official explanation is that we need to send a warning to anyone who's thinking of pulling the same stunt.

Even if you take such a harsh attitude, however, the chronic overcrowding in many Irish jails suggests that we should be much more selective about imposing lengthy sentences for non-violent offenders.

Last Monday, former prison officer Jarlath Walsh admitted to smuggling over €20,000 worth of cocaine, prescription tablets and mobile Sim cards into Mountjoy.

That sounds like a much more serious offence than evading tax by putting the wrong labels on food containers.

Walsh received a sentence of five years -- which means that he is scheduled for release a full twelve months before the unfortunate Paul Begley.

Begley could be forgiven for not wanting to see, eat or smell garlic ever again.

When it comes to judging his treatment by the Irish legal system, however, only one verdict is possible. It stinks.