The problem with mandatory sentencing

14th May 2009

On Tuesday the Irish Times reported that a 41 year old man, Simon Jones, was jailed for seven years (three suspended) at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court for possession of €280,000 worth of cocaine. On the face of it, this appeared to be a run-of-the-mill success story in the never-ending “war on drugs”. However, reading on I learnt that Mr. Jones was not a sophisticated baron presiding over an illicit business empire, but rather he was arrested while pressing cocaine under the direction of others to pay off a debt.

The Irish Times records that in court Simon Jones was described by sentencing judge Katherine Delahunt as being “close to the bottom of the ladder” in the drugs trade and that he did not appear to be making any financial gain from his actions, but under presumptive sentencing for drug offences in Section 15 A of the Misuse of Drugs Act, Judge Delahunt’s hands were tied. As a convicted drug dealer Simon Jones will not be eligible for temporary release and will most probably serve the greater part of this sentence. The same day, Peter O’Connell (37) was sentenced to seven years (three suspended) and the same Judge Delahunt told O’Connell he was “effectively acting as a shield” between gardaí and those “higher up the ladder”.

In contrast, the previous Friday Edward Griffin was given 8 years for beating a man to death and storing his body in a freezer for five years, and Kathleen Mulhall, the mother of the two Mulhall sisters who killed and dismembered the body of Kathleen’s boyfriend, was sentenced to five years in prison for impeding the investigation into the crime. While I am not familiar with all the details of the latter cases, I think it can safely be assumed that judges deciding the outcome were able to consider all the circumstances of the cases before them and decide on sentences appropriate in light of those. Such consideration is not possible where the law sets out a mandatory or presumptive sentence.

The drug trade is at the centre of many of social problems, but the reality of the presumptive sentence is that small cogs in the wheel such as Simon Jones and Peter O’Connell are now receiving sentences that potentially don’t reflect their role or level of involvement in the crime. These cases illustrate the basic problem with mandatory and presumptive sentencing – the law ends up treating the small fry the same as the big fish. What’s worse is that the big fish always seem to make sure that they are not arrested with over €13,000 worth of drugs (the limit in the Act) and we are starting to see our prisons filling up with the small and middle men and women, including drug “mules” from Africa and Latin America who are also likely to be making minimal financial gain from their risky involvement in the drug trade.

All this takes on a special resonance in a week when the Government is proposing new mandatory sentences for “gangland crime” (try defining what that means!) We only have to look to the United States to see where mandatory sentencing is going to take us and we should have absolutely no confidence that mandatory sentencing will have a real impact on the drug or gang problems. IPRT is completely opposed to mandatory sentencing and we can safely predict that if the Government continues in this way, we can all sit back and watch as our prison population steadily increases with more and more low-level criminals on long sentences. Just compare and contrast the sentences over the next few weeks and you’ll see what I mean.

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