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‘Dangerousness’ an important factor for judges considering life sentences - study

Leading criminologist says life terms are rarely imposed

The imposition of life sentences by Irish judges is “highly discretionary” and life terms are rarely imposed, according to research by a leading criminologist. The research found that life sentences in Ireland are mainly confined to homicide and cases involving serious sexual offences.

The indeterminate nature of a life sentence has been seen as beneficial in addressing concerns about protecting the public with “dangerousness” playing “more than an incidental role” in many decisions to impose a life sentence, according to Dr Diarmuid Griffin in an article, based on his research, published in the latest edition of the Irish Judicial Studies Journal.

Sentencing guidance from courts of appeal over the past decade may be having an impact in constraining the use of the “ultimate penalty” of the life sentence in practice, he also said.

Dr Griffin, director of the Law, Criminology and Criminal Justice programme at the University of Galway, examined judicial rationales in imposing and upholding discretionary sentences of life imprisonment here from 1987 to 2022.


Several European countries, he said, had relatively low levels of life sentence prisoners (LSPs) and rarely imposed life terms for offences outside murder.

Ireland ranked third-highest in 2022 of 46 Council of Europe (COE) countries in terms of LSPs as a percentage of its prison population. A 2022 COE report found LSPs account for 12.1 per cent of sentenced prisoners in Ireland, of whom the vast majority, 95 per cent, were serving the mandatory life term for murder while 3.5 per cent were convicted of very serious sexual offences.

However, Ireland had the sixth lowest rate within the COE of prisoners sentenced to 20 years or more. Excluding LSPs, there were seven such prisoners in 2022.

The average life term served is about 19 years and decisions of the Supreme Court had indicated a maximum threshold of 20 years in terms of a determinate/fixed sentence in very serious cases, he noted.

Based on a view that it is unsatisfactory for a court, in exercising its sentencing powers, to not know how long the offender will serve, judges are encouraged to opt for determinate sentences. To exceed a 20-year fixed term, and claim it was less than a life sentence, was described by one judge as “judicially dishonest and populist”, he said.

A life term, Dr Griffin said, was mandatory for murder and was selectively imposed, primarily for homicide or sexual offences, but some cases included concurrent life sentences for offences outside those categories. Sentence selection was frequently influenced by the multiplicity of offences, exceptional nature of the crime/crimes, and vulnerability of the victim/victims. Factors such as risk of reoffending and previous criminal history appeared to influence the sentence outcome, he said.

A life term was potentially available for 26 crimes here, mostly crimes against the person, but including some crimes against property, the community and public order, he said. In the 35 years reviewed, life sentences were imposed for 12 of the 26 crimes.

He examined cases of 32 offenders in 1987-2022 in which a total 91 life sentences were imposed. In 17 cases, multiple concurrent life sentences were imposed and two-thirds of the cases involved multiple victims, multiple incidents or both. In six cases, the convictions related to sample charges.

Almost all of the 32 cases were appealed. Of 26 appellants who sought to have the life sentence reduced, 12 failed but 14 appellants had their sentences reduced to determinate/fixed sentences.

The main reasons for the reductions included the crime not being at the level of seriousness necessary for a life term, failure to account for mitigating factors and a legal error in incorporating preventive detention – which Irish law does not permit – as an aggravating factor.

Comparatively speaking, judicial practice of life sentencing in Ireland appeared “highly discretionary and unstructured” with judicially developed principles cast in general terms, Dr Griffin said.

There was evidence of changing patterns as the decades progressed and sentencing principles evolved significantly since 1987, he said. Judicially developed guidance from 2014 regarding sentencing for a range of offences, along with legislative change, had a “dynamic” impact on sentencing patterns and practice.

Sentencing guidelines, he said, were being prepared by a committee established by the Judicial Council but its task was severely hampered by a lack of data.

Mary Carolan

Mary Carolan

Mary Carolan is the Legal Affairs Correspondent of the Irish Times