A quiet revolution occurred this month: sentencing guidelines were introduced
Consistency in sentencing is sensible, provided there is flexibility to cater for exceptional cases
A quiet revolution occurred in the Irish criminal justice system this month, although few noticed it. On Tuesday, March 18th, the Court of Criminal Appeal effectively introduced sentencing guidelines, a development many had recommended over the years.
Ireland had until then firmly resisted formal guidelines, preferring to rely on general principles established by the superior courts and occasionally by legislation.
In 1988, the Supreme Court was invited to indicate tariff sentences for rape but it firmly rejected the invitation, saying that there was insufficient information on existing sentencing practice to permit any reliable conclusions to be drawn on appropriate starting points. More importantly, it held that the discretion of trial judges should not be fettered by pre-determined guidelines or starting points.
Much has changed in the meantime. We have better information on sentencing practice, though much remains to be done in this regard. Attitudes within the legal community have also changed. Judges and lawyers are now far more conscious of the need for consistency in sentencing, provided there is sufficient flexibility to cater for exceptional cases.
This month, the Court of Criminal Appeal delivered three very significant sentencing judgments, dealing with the persistent sexual abuse of children, the offence of causing serious harm (the most serious assault offence under the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997 and carrying a maximum sentence of life imprisonment), and the illegal possession of firearms and ammunition.
In the sexual abuse case, the court upheld the life sentences imposed by Mr Justice Carney in the Central Criminal Court. The opportunity did not therefore arise to offer guidelines for that kind of offence, although the court made valuable observations on when a life sentence may be appropriate, even in response to a guilty plea.
In the remaining cases, however, the Court of Criminal Appeal took a major step forward by indicating appropriate sentence ranges for the offences in question. The judgment in the Ryan case, involving the possession of firearms, ranks as one of the most significant and thoughtful sentencing judgments delivered in this country to date.
Most significantly, perhaps, it expressly acknowledges that senior appeal courts have an important role in offering general sentencing guidance, including the indication of appropriate benchmarks, rather just reviewing sentences on a case-by-case basis.
Having surveyed several earlier decisions, it indicated relevant factors for assessing the seriousness of certain firearms offences and then held that for offences at the lower end of the scale, a sentence of five to seven years would be appropriate, with 7 to 10 years for offences in the middle range and 10 to 14 years for those at the top of the range. (Under current legislation, most of these offences attract a presumptive minimum sentence of five years, a factor which the court had to take into account).
Likewise, for the offence of causing serious harm, the court indicated sentences of 2 to 4 years at the lower end of the scale, 4 to 7½ years for offences in the middle range and 7½ to 12½ for those at the top of the scale, while accepting that some cases might merit anything up to life imprisonment.
The applicant in this case had been sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment with the last three suspended for a particularly brutal assault.