Progress in the
Penal System (PIPS)

PIPS 2019 PDF Download

1.3 Accountability in the courts

The overuse of short prison sentences has been a consistent theme in the penal system in Ireland. In 2018, the biggest increase in prison committals was of people serving sentences of less than three months and more generally less than 12 months.[21] This is despite the introduction of the Criminal Justice (Community Service) (Amendment) Act 2011, which provides that the court shall consider making a community service order as an alternative to a sentence of less than 12 months.[22] There has been no analysis of the impact of this legislation, and deeper interrogation is needed to understand the reasons why there has been an increase in the number of short sentences handed down by the courts.

Scant levels of data on sentencing have been published. In 2010, a pilot project and website called the Irish Sentencing Information System was set up to give the public an insight into how the courts sentence people.[23] As part of the overall project, researchers attended courts in selected areas and recorded information on sentences being imposed in the courts.[24] However, gaps were identified regarding the approach of the project, including the need for new IT systems and more efficient data collection methods, in order to produce a nationally representative picture of sentencing information.[25]

The publication of sentencing data must be a priority in order to identify trends and inform the development of proposed sentencing guidelines, as highlighted by Guilfoyle (2019):

Sentencing information is vital to the creation of sentencing guidelines. The first step to creating sentencing guidelines is to understand current sentencing practices and trends. … It would be a damaging and regressive step if sentencing guidelines were to end up causing sentences to increase and the prison population to expand. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance that Ireland has the infrastructure needed to collect and analyse the data that is required to monitor this, as well as other issues, prior to the introduction of any sentencing guideline.[26]

IPRT welcomes that the Law Reform Commission, in its Fifth Programme of Law Reform, will consider to what extent the general principles of sentencing, combined with a suitable sentencing information database, could provide the basis for a structured sentencing system.[27]

Under the Judicial Council Act 2019, a Sentencing Guidelines and Information Committee will be established.[28] One of the functions of the Committee will include to ‘collate in such a manner as it considers appropriate, information on sentences imposed by the courts.’[29] Under the Act, a Judicial Conduct Committee will be established whose function will be to investigate complaints against judges.[30]

IPRT welcomes the above developments, particularly the importance of collating sentencing data in order to promote judicial accountability, ensuring that the principle of imprisonment is used as a last resort.


References:

Irish Penal Reform Trust

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