Why does ‘life’ now mean a much longer sentence?

Opinion: political discretion that allowed leniency in 1970s now acts in service of severity

 While the trend towards increasing the length of time served by those on life sentences is clear, the rationale for this upward trajectory has yet to be articulated by those responsible for the release of this category of offenders.  Photograph: Getty Images

While the trend towards increasing the length of time served by those on life sentences is clear, the rationale for this upward trajectory has yet to be articulated by those responsible for the release of this category of offenders. Photograph: Getty Images

Mon, Jul 7, 2014, 01:00

In Ireland, a life sentence prisoner can expect to spend 22 years in prison. This is in marked contrast to the single-digit figures served by such offenders in the 1970s.

Ireland has now surpassed England and Wales in terms of time served. The relatively consistent approach to time served by murderers in England and Wales over the last decade ( 14 to 17 years) is in stark contrast to the increases in Ireland (from 11 to 22 years).

From 2001 to 2012, the number of life sentence prisoners increased by 119 per cent. Ireland’s life sentence prisoner population is now comparatively high in a European context.

While the trend towards increasing the length of time served is clear, the rationale for this upward trajectory has yet to be articulated by those responsible for the release of this category of offenders.

A life sentence is mandatorily imposed on conviction for murder and it may be, but rarely is, imposed for other offences of violence against the person. However, life does not ordinarily mean life in prison, and most countries have created a process whereby lifers are released back into the community having served a period of time in prison.

Recalled

While some argue life should mean life, legal and operational considerations preclude the detention of offenders for the duration of their lives in many countries. Upon release, lifers can be recalled to prison for breach of their conditions at any time and remain under the supervision of the Probation Service in the community for the remainder of their lives.

In Ireland, a non-statutory, advisory parole board makes recommendations to the Minister for Justice who ultimately decides at what point a lifer is released. A lifer becomes eligible for release having served seven years in prison; however, this has ceased to act as a meaningful threshold, with the average lifer now serving more than three times this amount.

The decision-making process is avowedly political and informal, with the minister and the parole board acting with wide discretion when deliberating on individual cases. This process is in direct contrast to most European countries, where decisions on release are made by a court or court-like body.

A justification for the increase in time served might relate to the risk profile of those sentenced to life imprisonment. Decision-makers may be concerned that lifers currently being reviewed by the parole process present a higher risk of reoffending upon release than those in previous decades. This might explain the reluctance of the minister to release such offenders.

Of course, it is in the interests of the public that lifers who continue to present a threat to society should not be released until it can be demonstrated that this risk has been reduced to an acceptable level. Yet there is little evidence to indicate that lifers currently eligible for release present more of a danger to the public now than those released in 1970s, 1980s or 1990s.

Relatively stable

The principal offence type (murder), the relationship to the victim (often a family member, spouse, friend or acquaintance) and age range (ordinarily over 30 on committal) has remained relatively stable over the past number of decades.

Data published by the Irish Prison Service and Central Statistics Office in 2013 indicates that homicide offenders have relatively low reoffending rates compared with other offence categories.

Further, when homicide offenders on release did reoffend, they were reconvicted of crimes such as road and traffic offences, public order offences and dangerous or negligent acts. No homicide offender released during the period of this study was reconvicted for a further homicide or sexual offence.

A more plausible explanation for the increase in time served can be found by examining the decision-making process. It is likely that the political and discretionary nature of parole decision-making has facilitated such significant increases in time served.

Naturally, a politician will take a cautious approach when it comes to the release of those who have committed serious and violent offences. It is certainly easier to publicly and politically defend a decision to release a lifer when the time served in prison is significantly longer than the average release under previous political regimes.

But this highlights the danger of placing responsibility for the release or further detention of an individual in the hands of a politician. It appears that the political discretion that once permitted leniency in the 1970s now operates in the service of severity.

Diarmuid Griffin lectures in criminal law at NUI Galway

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