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Accountability in the penal system involves tracking the implementation of policy. Ireland has a long history of far-sighted progressive penal policy that has not been fully implemented, dating as far back as 1985 when the Report of the Committee of Inquiry into the penal system, (often referred to as ‘the Whitaker Report’) was published. The report made a number of recommendations that remain relevant to enhancing accountability structures in the penal system. These include: prisoners should have the right to have grievances investigated by the Ombudsman; and that steps should be taken to bring about greater confidence in Prison Visiting Committees through examination of the appointments process and duties.
More recently, an implementation mechanism was built into the most recent comprehensive penal policy statement, the Strategic Review of Penal Policy (2014). To date, the Implementation Oversight Group of the Strategic Review of Penal Policy has published seven progress reports on the implementation of 43 recommendations. However, despite the introduction of this mechanism, minimal progress appears to have been achieved in the implementation of recommendations made. In some cases, regress has occurred.
One clear example of a retraction on an agreed penal policy recommendation relates to mandatory and presumptive sentencing. Following a detailed analysis of the law in Ireland and in other jurisdictions, the Law Reform Commission (2013) recommended that mandatory and presumptive minimum sentencing for certain drug and firearms offences should be repealed and should not be extended to other offences. Similarly, the Penal Policy Review Group (PPRG, 2014) recommended that no further mandatory or presumptive minimum sentences should be introduced. Yet, despite this, in 2019 new mandatory minimum sentences for repeat sex offenders passed both Houses of the Oireachtas. This is one clear example of a lack of accountability in implementation of penal policy.
O’Donnell (2013) previously described the lack of follow-through on penal policy recommendations in Ireland. There are examples where commissions were established with specific terms of reference, yet there appears to have been little follow-through on the implementation of recommendations made many years later.
For example, in 2007, the National Commission on Restorative Justice was established to examine how restorative justice could be mainstreamed in the Irish criminal justice system. In its (2009) report, the Commission made 66 recommendations and in its foreword, stated: “Victims, offenders, their families and their communities can all benefit from a restorative approach to criminal behaviour and the Commission strongly recommends national implementation, in a structured way, which will see a move from the existing two adult pilot projects, through an expansion phase of at least six more developmental projects, to national implementation.” The national implementation of these projects never materialised.
This shows the importance of monitoring and implementation of policy recommendations, essential to accountability in the penal system.
A data-driven approach is a core pillar that supports accountability in penal policy. In this respect, IPRT welcomes that the Department of Justice and Equality has published its Data and Research Strategy 2018–2021, alongside the regular publication of statistics by the Irish Prison Service (IPS).  However, data published remains insufficient to identify consistent trends and draw firm conclusion on a range of issues in the penal system. Improvements in this area are necessary to advance penal policy more broadly.
Committee of Inquiry into the Penal System (1985), Report of the Committee of Inquiry into the Penal System, Dublin: Stationery Office.
Department of Justice and Equality (2014), Strategic Review of Penal Policy, Final Report, July 2014, http://www.justice.ie/en/JELR/Pages/PB14000244.
Department of Justice and Equality, Penal Policy Review, http://www.justice.ie/en/JELR/Pages/Penal_Policy_Review.
Law Reform Commission (2013), Report Mandatory Sentences, https://www.lawreform.ie/news/report-on-mandatory-sentences.405.html
See Recommendation 34 of Department of Justice and Equality (2014), Strategic Review of Penal Policy, Final Report, July 2014, http://www.justice.ie/en/JELR/Strategic%20Review%20of%20Penal%20Policy.pdf/Files/Strategic%20Review%20of%20Penal%20Policy.pdf.
Department of Justice and Equality (2019), ‘Minister for Justice and Equality, Charlie Flanagan, T.D., and Minister of State Kevin ‘Boxer’ Moran, T.D., announce passage of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) (Amendment) Bill 2018’, http://www.justice.ie/en/JELR/Pages/PR19000042.
An important development during the period is a decision by the Supreme Court in May 2019, which declared unconstitutional a law requiring that a mandatory five-year minimum sentence be imposed on some persons convicted under a section of the Firearms Act. See: ‘Supreme Court rules mandatory firearm sentence unconstitutional’, The Irish Times, https://www.irishtimes.com/news/crime-and-law/courts/supreme-court/supreme-court-rules-mandatory-firearm-sentence-unconstitutional-1.3893157
O’Donnell, I. (2013), ‘Penal policy in Ireland: The malign effect of sustained neglect’, An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol. 102, No. 407, p.318.
Department of Justice and Equality, ‘National Commission on restorative justice established’ http://www.justice.ie/en/JELR/Pages/PR07000321.
Department of Justice and Equality (2009), National Commission on Restorative Justice Final Report (p.3), http://www.justice.ie/en/JELR/NCRJ%20Final%20Report.pdf/Files/NCRJ%20Final%20Report.pdf.
Department of Justice and Equality, Data and Research Strategy 2018–2021 (2018), http://www.justice.ie/en/JELR/Pages/Department_of_Justice_and_Equality_Data_and_Research_Strategy_2018-2021.
Irish Prison Service, ‘Statistics and information’, https://www.irishprisons.ie/information-centre/statistics-information/.