Sentences for homicide too lenient, families of victims say

Advocacy group calls for setting of ‘firm tariffs’ to guide the judiciary

Marion Nolan, Walkinstown, Dublin, with a photograph of her son Alan. As a member of advocacy group AdVic she has called for set tariffs for unlawful killing. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

Marion Nolan, Walkinstown, Dublin, with a photograph of her son Alan. As a member of advocacy group AdVic she has called for set tariffs for unlawful killing. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

Wed, Jun 19, 2013, 05:00

FIONA GARTLAND

New research shows the families of victims of homicide believe sentences given to perpetrators are too lenient.

Carried out for advocacy group AdVic by researcher Cathriona Nash, Research on Issues Concerning Homicide in Ireland 2013 found just over 90 per cent of victims’ families believed sentences were lenient or excessively lenient and more than 60 per cent said set tariffs should be introduced for homicide.

Three quarters of families believed the State pursued charges of manslaughter instead of murder in order to achieve a conviction. And 90 per cent said they were unhappy with current bail laws.

AdVic, which has 340 members who’ve had a family member killed through homicide, has called for the setting of guideline tariffs for homicidal crimes. Murder currently attracts a mandatory life sentence in Ireland, but there are no set tariffs for other homicides.

The study found families were also very unhappy with how the victim was portrayed in court and communication with the State proved to be difficult for many. More than half of families said they did not understand the rationale behind sentencing and reported they were dissatisfied with updates about the status of perpetrators. They also called for the abolition of concurrent sentencing and for stricter bail laws.

The study also found one in five partners split with their spouses following a homicide and almost three quarters reported their relationships suffered. Some 13 per cent never returned to work after the death and one in five moved house as a result of the bereavement.

Criminologist John O’Keeffe said sentencing and the length of sentences are “at the top of the pyramid” in terms of issues that need to be resolved. The organisation is not seeking to have minimum sentences for homicidal crimes other than murder, he said, but is seeking “pretty firm tariffs” to guide judges.

“Tariffs would allow for judicial discretion, but they would be a starting point for judges to work up or work down from and then tell us why,” he said.

“We need to get the sentencing practice right in so far as it is transparent, it’s clear for everybody to see and the judiciary is comfortable with it.”

He said it was known anecdotally the judiciary are not happy with the current situation.

“They don’t know what to do because they feel it is going to be thrown down by the Court of Criminal Appeal and they are obviously plumping for the smaller sentences,” he said.

The system was in favour of the offender at present and needed to be brought back to “the middle ground”, he added.