Transport Minister Leo Varadkar last week rejected a call from Fianna Fáil to impose mandatory sentences in cases where dangerous driving causes death. His view, for which there is increasing evidence, is that mandatory sentencing in general does not work. Where the law requires it, judges who are fully aware of all aspects of a case have little discretion in sentencing offenders and ensuring the punishment fits the crime. And where a mandatory term does not apply, the judge in imposing a sentence must first consider whether any aggravating or mitigating circumstances apply. As the Minister noted: “That is the reason we have courts, judges and juries.”
Fianna Fáil last year failed to win Government support on mandatory sentencing. It has now proposed via an other private members’ measure – the Judicial Sentencing Commission Bill – to promote a consistent approach to sentencing. The Law Reform Commission (LRC), in a report last year on mandatory sentencing, was critical of what the approach achieved. A mandatory minimum penalty operates for drug-dealing offences, but has produced mixed results. Drug gang bosses have minimised their risk of detection by using low-level drug offenders as couriers to hold and transport drugs. The high number of such minor offenders has swollen the prison population. Here mandatory penalties failed to deter serious offenders and punished minor ones too severely.
The LRC has recommended that the proposed judicial council, yet to be established on a statutory basis, should develop sentencing guidelines for judges. Such guidelines are needed to ensure greater consistency in sentencing policy, and not least to maintain public confidence in our judicial system. Above all what the public wants to see applied is broadly similar penalties for broadly similar offences. Given the easier access to court data in this digital age, that reform should not be too difficult to achieve and is long overdue.