Irish Penal Reform Trust

RTE's 'The Frontline': Mandatory Sentencing for Burglary

1st February 2010

Mandatory sentencing for burglars was the talking point on RTE’s The Frontline this week; focusing primarily on the area of vulnerable victims, the sentencing practice received support from two of the guest speakers on the programme, Sean Connick TD and Mr. Ken Barry.  Concerns were raised as to the effectiveness of the judiciary to adequately respond to the issue of burglary.

Mr. Barry and various audience members spoke of a fear present, among isolated and elderly members of the community, that they were no longer safe in their homes.  Those advocating the introduction of mandatory sentences without possibility of remission claimed that crimes committed without regard for the consequences could be reduced, as well as those crimes committed by those on bail.

Also present among the guest speakers was solicitor Catherine Ghent, voicing her opposition to calls for mandatory sentencing.  Ms. Ghent questioned the implicit assumption that criminals act with a rational eye to the potential negative consequences of their actions and claimed that the believed deterrent effect is something of a fallacy.

On a more positive note, Ms. Ghent outlined the downward trend in juvenile crime figures and pointed towards the introduction of such progressive legislation as the Children Act 2001 which was proving effective as a means of reducing crime.

IPRT Executive Director Liam Herrick also voiced his opposition to the concept of mandatory sentencing on the programme, claiming the discussion amounted to the politicisation of an emotive issue; he highlighted the proven ineffectiveness of mandatory sentencing in the US and called for ‘practical and more mundane issues’ which could prove more effective in reducing crime.

IPRT, in its Position Paper on the subject, has outlined the myriad reasons why such measures aimed at introducing mandatory sentencing are inadvisable.  The use of such a sentencing practice undermines the integrity of the judicial system, rendering the judiciary unable to exercise its discretion and permitting the imposition of unjust sentences.  Current presumptive sentencing for some drugs offences is frequently directed at the minnows of the drugs trade for example, having little impact on the activities of those who the measures were presumably designed to be used against.  In his Director’s Blog on the issue, Liam illustrates the fact that it is invariably those with a lesser stake in the drugs trade who are frequently penalised by the existing presumptive sentencing.

Furthermore, the stated deterrent effect of mandatory sentences is hugely overblown; mandatory sentences have doubtful effectiveness in deterring criminals from their actions.  The impact of such practices leads necessarily to an increased prison population and the ever-increasing costs of sustaining this.

While it is desirable for sentencing to be consistent and transparent, this is not best achieved by restricting the ability of the judiciary to tailor proportionate sentences to the circumstances.

Watch the discussion:

RTE’s ‘The Frontline’ can be accessed here by clicking on the link ‘A right to have a go?’

Read more:

Respect for rights in the penal system with prison as a last resort.



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