19th November 2023
On 19 November 2023, IPRT responded to RTÉ's Legal Affairs Correspondent Órla O’Donnell who was examining why guilty pleas in murder cases are infrequent in the article 'Why are guilty pleas for murder cases uncommon?'.
In the piece of analysis, IPRT stated it wanted the law to be reformed. IPRT Executive Director, Saoirse Brady, said the current system may discourage an accused person from pleading guilty and said there’s little to no evidence that mandatory sentences act as an effective deterrent to crime. IPRT said it believes there is a need for a wider public debate on sentencing and its purpose and is hoping to see new sentencing guidelines published by the judicial council in the near future.
Read more about IPRT's position below.
IPRT believes that the current system of a mandatory life sentence for murder may discourage an accused person from pleading guilty. There is little to no evidence that mandatory sentences act as an effective deterrent to crime. IPRT believes that the mandatory sentencing regime for murder should be amended and replaced with a discretionary maximum sentence of life imprisonment. This would empower the Court to recommend that a defendant serves a minimum specific term of imprisonment having regard to the particular circumstances of the case. This is a position that the Law Reform Commission recommended in 2008.
One of the priorities of the ‘Criminal Justice Policy: Review of Policy Options for Prison and Penal Reform 2022-2024' (available here) is to introduce judicial discretion to set minimum tariffs for life sentences and examine the effectiveness of the use of mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes. However, before tariffs are introduced, we first need to have a national conversation on the purpose of sentencing: what do we want to achieve in sentencing? Is it punitiveness or rehabilitation and public safety, and how should these be balanced? In other words, we need sentencing principles to be established before beginning to talk about sentencing guidelines and tariffs. Overall, IPRT believes there is a need for a wider public debate on sentencing and its purpose. We hope to see new Sentencing Guidelines published by the Judicial Council in the near future.
Another priority of the government’s policy is the proposed establishment of a Penal Policy Consultative Council - a body that IPRT has repeatedly advocated for. This will provide an important forum to provide oversight, consistency, and independent advice to the Minister for Justice which will in turn help drive the implementation of the Review’s recommendations and actions including this discussion on sentencing.
In terms of life sentences, it should be noted that even where a person is eligible for parole after 12 years of serving a sentence, it does not mean that they will be automatically released. The Parole Board will take into account a number of different criteria and the level of risk will be assessed to determine whether a person should be released. The views of victims will also form an important part of that decision-making process. If a person is released, they are released on licence with conditions and if they breach those conditions then they will be sent back to prison. They will also be under probation supervision for the rest of their lives.