Wednesday, August 31, 2022

By Cate McCurry, PA

Offenders convicted of the most serious crimes, including murder, could face a minimum term of up to 30 years without parole under proposed reforms by the Department of Justice.

Minister for Justice Helen McEntee said that judges will be given powers to set minimum tariffs of between 15 and 30 years before prisoners would be allowed to go before a parole board.

The Cabinet on Wednesday approved a set of recommendations for sentencing put forward following a review of penal and prison policy.

The Government also has plans to introduce alternatives to prison for very minor offences.

The Review of Policy Options for Prison and Penal Reform includes 21 actions and identifies six actions which are aimed at reducing reoffending and avoiding overcrowding in prisons.

One of the main recommendations is scaling back the number of short custodial sentences, particularly those under three months, and instead expanding the range of community services and sentences.

The review also recommended bringing in new minimum tariffs for offenders who receive life sentences.

Speaking in Dublin following the Cabinet meeting, Ms McEntee said she believes judges should have the option of setting a higher minimum tariff for the most “heinous” crimes.

Under the current law, a prisoner sentenced to life imprisonment is eligible for parole when they have served at least 12 years of their sentence.

 

“What I’m proposing here and what I bring forward in legislation in January is to allow a judge in those particularly heinous cases, to set minimum tariffs of 15, 20, 30, years before a person can come before the parole board, acknowledging that where serious crimes are committed we need to make sure that the punishment matches it,” Ms McEntee said.

“This policy is very much about striking the right balance by looking at the type of crime, the victims involved, and how do we rehabilitate people, because ultimately prison is about penalising people, but also it’s about trying to reform people.

“What I’m proposing here is to allow flexibility for the judiciary. I’m not setting any set timeframe here. I’m allowing a judge to take into account consideration of the case, potential impact on victims.

“It’s acknowledging that for particularly heinous crimes, where there are victims involved, acknowledging the severity of the crime, and at the same time ensuring that when a person is imprisoned, they can still avail of different types of reform programmes.

“We are not proposing to have a life sentence where a person never has the option to get out.”

Ms McEntee said that where an offender is not a threat to society or poses a risk, alternatives to imprisonment could be considered.

“Perhaps two hours of community service might serve a person better than three months in prison, they’re less likely to lose their jobs and less likely, if they are young, to lose their place in school,” she added.

 

“They might keep that connection with the community that they need, but they’re still obviously receiving a punishment.

“It’s about looking at the individual factors of the case. It’s about looking at whether or not prison is the best option here, not just for the perpetrator, but potentially for community as a whole, and how can we try and redivert people away from a life of crime.

“If you look at a number of the actions, it looks at how can we develop certain types of programmes, looking at marginalised communities, looking at women who offend, looking at younger people in particular as well and tailoring them around those people’s needs.

“Keeping in the back of our minds this is about keeping everybody safe. It’s about improving community safety as a whole but acknowledging that sometimes prison can actually make things worse for a person and can actually lead them down a worse path of crime.

“It’s about developing those programmes, working very closely with the probation service, working with many of the community groups that already do fantastic work in this space, not just working with offenders and their families, but working with their healthcare professionals.

“You are more likely to turn that person’s life around but, in turn, keep the community safer by looking at these other options.”

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