Coherent sentencing policy must be implemented - Cox


THE ISSUE of a coherent sentencing policy needs to be sorted out formally or informally by the judiciary, according to the former president of the European Parliament and PD politician Pat Cox.

Mr Cox told a conference of the Federation for Victim Assistance at the weekend that if this did not come from the judiciary itself it would have to come “through the law of the land”.

“The absence of a judicial council means that no systematic framework exists in Ireland, save for their own professional discretion, for elucidating clear sentencing principles and for ensuring that all judges have regular and required professional training and refresher courses,” he said. Guidelines in plain language containing essential principles for judges and the public would help to explain and clarify sentencing decisions, he said.

“When it comes to wilful and gratuitous crimes of violence against the person, many feel that the courts have not found the right balance in sentencing policy. The public have a right to be better informed on the basis on which sentences are imposed and to be reassured that this policy is coherent,” he said. Otherwise there was a risk of undermining confidence in the justice system.

Prof Marc Groenhuijsen, founding director of the International Victimology Institute in Tilburg, Netherlands, said there had been a lot of progress on victims’ rights in the past 20 years. This gave rise, however, to increased expectations and increased risk of disappointment on the part of victims.

He referred to the Council of Europe on State Compensation and the EU Directive on Compensation (for victims of crime), but noted that these had not been fully implemented in many countries.

Best practice in the case of the most serious crimes was to have a meeting with the prosecutor, but only a few countries in the EU had this, including the Netherlands.

In the context of an Ireland where the cloak of denial and secrecy had not yet been fully lifted, there was an imperative on the media to give victims a voice, Gerard Colleran, editor of the Starnewspaper, told the conference.

For all its faults, the media gave victims the chance to communicate hurt, he said. “The media illustrates the offences that have been carved on their personalities, highlights the wrongs that have been done and shines a light on people who, even now, still try to hide in very dark corners.

“And on a number of well-documented occasions, the media, by giving the voiceless their say, has prompted action from the gardaí and the Government, resulting in significant advances towards justice,” Mr Colleran said.

Referring to recent comments from Mr Justice Carney about his inability to impose a life sentence on a rapist, he said: “It appears his comments have fallen entirely on deaf ears – the political class maintaining its long-standing and embarrassing servility towards the judiciary, while the judiciary itself maintains a firm silence.”

Automatic 25 per cent remission on jail terms is unlikely to be withdrawn when to do so would impose enormous marginal cost on the State, as would lengthier sentencing policies, he added.

The conference also heard testimonies from victims of crime.