The Balances of Justice

13th January 2010

Balances of JusticeOn Sunday, I was involved in a radio discussion on RTÉ’s Sunday Forum about justice in homicide cases.

The programme was interesting and quite balanced in its discussion, but made me think about some of the main problems in how the issue of justice in serious crime cases has been discussed in Ireland in recent years.

Ger Philpott participated on the panel on behalf of AdVic from a victim’s perspective, and gave a moving account of how his family have been impacted by the violent killing of his nephew.

The two central question posed in the programme were: whether our system of criminal justice provides justice to victims of homicide and their families; and whether there should be a mandatory sentence for murder. The framing of these two very separate questions together discloses one of the fundamental difficulties with how public debate on the issue of serious crime has become structured.

In the first instance, the assertion that an adversarial criminal justice system can in any way produce meaningful redress for the loss of human life is of course untrue. Our system of justice translates an act of violence between an offender and a victim to a formal legal procedure between State and offender. The process is aimed at finding an appropriate and just punishment for the crime, as well as considering issues of public protection, possible deterrence of others, and the potential for the rehabilitation of the offender.

"...the assertion that an adversarial criminal justice system can in any way produce meaningful redress for the loss of human life is of course untrue."

In the context of a system which is geared to punish crime, the suggestion that the degree of punishment of offenders will somehow increase respect for victims is problematic. Debate on this emotive issue, with catchphrases such “life should mean life”, has traditionally focused on the length of sentences, neglecting completely more complex questions of the purpose of sentences and what happens within sentences.

IPRT’s perspective on the questions posed in the programme is that this approach to sentencing distracts attention away from real issues of victims’ rights. AdVic have published a policy document calling for reform of the criminal process which respects the role of the victim in areas such as: legal representation for victims and compensation; providing information regarding procedures in the courts to victims and their families; and keeping victims and their families informed about the prospective release of offenders. While IPRT would take a different view to AdVic on issues around mandatory sentencing, we would strongly support their position on all of these issues.

On the central issue of sentencing, there is undoubtedly huge scope for reform to make the judicial process more transparent - but again, the goal of making the process more consistent and the false promise of making the result in different cases the same, is a confusion that has bedevilled this issue for some time.

On a highly controversial and important issue, the discussion on Sunday was refreshingly balanced and we hope that our message can get across that respecting victims’ rights is not simply about taking rights away from offenders.

On Sunday 10th January, RTÉ's The Sunday Forum discussed what society's moral response should be to murder. Panellists included: Ger Philpott, AdVic; John Lonergan, Governor of Mountjoy Prison; Prof Harry Kennedy, psychiatrist and Clinical Director of the Central Mental Hospital; John O’Keeffe, Dean of Law, Dublin Business School, along with IPRT's Liam Herrick.

To hear the perspectives of the other panellists, listen here.

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