A decision by Minister for Justice Helen McEntee to order an external review of sentence calculations after a series of mistakes was uncovered has been welcomed by the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT).
“Nobody should ever be held in custody for any longer than they are required to be,” said the organisation’s executive director Saoirse Brady.
“A person’s release date is the day that the person and their family are planning for and working towards, so any errors can have a huge impact on that person’s morale and mental health.
“It is important that any changes are communicated to people in prison in a clear and transparent way and that they are given an opportunity to ask questions about any change in sentence.”
Ms McEntee announced that the report would be carried out after it emerged that three prisoners were mistakenly released from prison last year due to errors in the calculation of their sentences.
In two of the cases, the prisoners were released early because they were granted remission they were not entitled to. The prisoners were serving sentences for contempt of court, one of the few offences where remission does not apply.
“While instances such as these are always regrettable, these should be viewed in the context of over 6,000 releases from custody in 2021,” an Irish Prison Service spokesman said.
All three prisoners were later recaptured and brought back to serve their full sentences.
One of those released early was Craig O’Donoghue of Killala Court, Knocknaheeney, Cork who was jailed for two months for contempt for failing to give evidence in connection with the murder of Cameron Blair.
Mr O’Donoghue went on holidays instead of testifying at the trial of a teenager who committed violent disorder at the scene of the young man’s murder.
The errors were first noticed during a wide-ranging audit of sentence calculations, which was carried after officials realised in December 2020 that a prisoner had been released before the end of their sentence.
The audit, which was carried out between February and July 2021, identified dozens of sentencing calculation errors. In some cases, the errors meant prisoners were spending too long in prison while in others, their release dates were too early.
In total, the audit identified 48 sentencing errors across the prison estate. When these were recalculated, 25 prisoners saw their sentences decrease while 23 had their sentences increased.
A follow-up review was carried out in July 2021 to examine whether time served while on remand had been properly accounted for in prisoners’ sentences. This found another 83 errors. Of these, 77 sentences were increased and six decreased.
It is understood all of the errors involved periods of time of less than 12 months. When the errors were noticed, six prisoners had to be released immediately.
Sentencing calculation can be a complex exercise, particularly if a prisoner is being sentenced on multiple sets of charges or if they are already serving a sentence.
The Irish Prison Service (IPS) has adopted a new sentence calculation policy to prevent such errors reoccurring.
The IPS said the reasons for the errors included “erroneous start dates where a prisoner had multiple warrants, incorrect linking of consecutive and concurrent warrants, warrants not recorded after appeals and misinterpretation of warrants.”
After the errors were noticed, “a new overarching sentence calculation policy was developed and implemented across the service,” the IPS said. “To complement these steps, an external review of sentence calculation has been commissioned and will commence shortly.”
As a result of an error in his sentence, a prisoner took his case to the High Court in October 2021 seeking release. The High Court declined to order his release but this was overturned by the Court of Appeal.