Irish Penal Reform Trust

Same Crime: Different Punishment? Investigating Sentencing Disparities Between Irish and Non-Irish Nationals in the Irish Criminal Justice System

28th September 2018

Same Crime: Different Punishment? Investigating Sentencing Disparities Between Irish and Non-Irish Nationals in the Irish Criminal Justice System (Brandon and O’Connell, 2017) investigates whether disparities exist between sentencing outcomes for Irish and non-Irish nationals and is the first to examine sentencing disparities by offender nationality in an Irish context.

Data analyses suggest that there is a modest, but statistically significant difference between sentence lengths for Irish and non-Irish nationals for 35 different offences, whereby non-Irish nationals receive longer sentences than Irish nationals. The article notes that non-Irish nationals are statistically significantly overrepresented for certain offences.

However, the authors note that when investigating the cause of ethnic minority overrepresentation within international criminal justice systems, it is necessary to reflect on three possible explanations. The first is that ethnic minority groups simply commit more crime than the majority ethnic group. The second possible explanation is that they are targeted by law enforcement and ‘over-policed’, resulting in disproportionate arrest rates. This may be due to conscious or unconscious ethnic profiling by officers, concentrated policing in certain areas or policies that disproportionately impact minorities. Finally, the third possible explanation considers that ethnic minorities are given harsher sentences than the majority group for proportionately similar crimes.

Do ethnic minorities commit more crime?

The article notes that, although there is limited Irish research examining the social profile of prisoners, it is widely accepted that most of those incarcerated have a history of social exclusion and unemployment, with high levels of familial, educational and health disadvantage. It goes on to state that these factors are not limited to those of Irish nationality, and in fact, it may be argued that those of non-Irish nationality in Ireland are a particularly vulnerable demographic, with less social support, unequal access to services and benefits, fewer employment opportunities and poorer English language proficiency heightening their propensity to turn to crime. Moreover, in Ireland, offences including non-payment of fines, vagrancy and begging may be seen to disproportionately impact minorities, including refugees and economic migrants.

Are ethnic minorities targeted by police officers?

The article finds that ethnic minority communities tend to be ‘over-policed’, through high levels of harassment, confrontational policing styles and overt misconduct in various forms; and yet ‘under-protected’, with their victimisation accorded lesser significance by criminal justice agents. The outcome of this is that internationally, relations between law enforcement and ethnic minority communities are often characterised by a lack of confidence, suspicion and hostility. Interestingly, the article notes research by the EU Fundamental Rights Agency in 2009 which found that that Ireland had the second highest rate of police stops in the EU. Moreover, the report states that non-Irish defendants do not have a statutory right to an interpreter in Ireland, with the onus often lying with the police officer to decide whether one is required. These inconsistencies in the treatment of non-Irish nationals during courtroom proceedings may significantly impact sentencing outcomes.

Do minorities receive harsher sentences?

The impact of ethnicity in sentencing outcomes has been well documented in international research.

Federal judges in the US imposed sentences on African-Americans that were 12% longer than those imposed on white males convicted of the same offence and with comparable criminal histories. The article also notes that racial and ethnic disparities also appear to increase with the severity of the offence imposed; 66.4% of those serving life sentences in the US are non-white. Although African-Americans make up just 13% of the total population, they constitute 56.4% of those sentenced to life without parole and 56.1% of those who received a life without parole sentence as a juvenile.


The findings of this article indicate that, even when controlling for factors including previous custodial sentences and gender, non-Irish nationals receive modest but statistically significantly longer sentences than Irish nationals for the same criminal offence. Although this study is not without limitations, these findings suggest that bias is occurring within the criminal justice system and warrants further examination. Additionally, due to the modest nature of the bias, it may not fully explain the disproportionate numbers of non-Irish nationals in prisons for certain offences, and alternative explanations must be considered.

Read Same Crime: Different Punishment? Investigating Sentencing Disparities Between Irish and Non-Irish Nationals in the Irish Criminal Justice System on The British Journal of Criminology.

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