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Why a life sentence now means life

Eamon Lillis faces into a lengthy sentence for manslaughter today -- but if the jury had recorded a guilty verdict on the murder charge, he would have been eligible for a free bus pass when he got out.

The reality if he had been convicted of murder would have been life inside until roughly 2026. The businessman would then have been 68.

His only child, now a teenager, would by then be 33 years old.

According to figures recently disclosed in the Dail by the Justice Minister Dermot Ahern the average sentence served by a person convicted of murder over the past five years has been 16 years.

The get-tough sentences were pushed through following a public outcry over the time being served by lifers in the period 1975 to 1984.


Contrary to the popular perception that time served in jail for murder has lessened in recent years, those convicted of murder during that period spent an average of between eight and eight years behind bars -- half of the current average sentence.

The length of time to be served by a convicted murderer is a matter for the Parole Board, which makes recommendations to the Justice Minister.

He may refuse to accept their recommendation, but in the vast majority of cases agrees with them.

All prisoners serving a life sentence are eligible to have their cases reviewed by the Parole Board when legal appeals have been exhausted, and they have served seven years.

The most recent figures available -- up to December 2008- revealed that 264 people were serving life in the country's jails.

They include the men and women who were central figures in headline-grabbing trials -- Malcolm McArthur, Englishmen John Shaw and Geoffrey Evans, Catherine Nevin and Sharon Mulhall.

Among the lifers are 24 inmates whose sentences were imposed before 1990 and who have now served almost 20 years.

Jimmy Ennis now almost 78 has been inside since 1964 , but became institutionalised, and has only recently moved out of prison on a temporary basis.

Five life-sentence prisoners have died in custody since 1997.