Guide for public on reasons for sentences published by body for State’s judges

Information covers a range of offences and explains factors behind decision making

Newspapers have played a distinct role as a source of information on sentencing that is ‘concerning’, the report said

Newspapers have played a distinct role as a source of information on sentencing that is ‘concerning’, the report said

 

An information guide for the public on the reasons for sentences imposed for a range of crimes has been published by the representative body for the State’s judges.

The Judicial Council’s sentencing committee has also published an interim report which found that “profound limitations” in sentencing data are hindering the task of drawing up “useful” sentencing guidelines for offences including various forms of child sexual abuse.

The offences covered by the 14-page public information guide are rape, defilement, assault manslaughter, assault causing serious harm, dangerous driving causing death and serious bodily harm, possession of child pornography, robbery, burglary, cannabis cultivation, possession of a firearm in suspicious circumstances and tax and welfare fraud.

The guide sets out sentencing guidelines concerning a range of offences and explains the factors that can, for example, mean that some rape offences result in a life sentence while other offences attract a considerably lower sentence.

It explains a life term can apply if a rape is carried out with serious violence or if the victim is subjected to sexual perversion or greater humiliation than normally associated with a rape offence.

The guide has been published by the Sentencing Guidelines and Information Committee (SGIC) of the Judicial Council, representing the State’s 167 judges.

Available on the council’s website, it sets out the core factors concerning sentencing in the form of bullet points. For those seeking more detailed information, it includes links to relevant court judgments concerning sentencing guidelines for the various crimes.

The committee has also published a draft interim report which highlights significant gaps in sentencing data in Ireland.

Compiled by Tom O’Malley SC, criminal law expert and Associate Professor of Law at NUI Galway, along with crime research academic experts from the UK and the US, the report is the first of four to be prepared to establish what must be done to ensure that high quality sentencing data is available to inform the preparation of sentencing guidelines.

While flexibility in sentencing is important here, concerns over disparity and inconsistency in sentencing “have never been assuaged”, the report noted.

Even today, sentencing data remains limited, making it difficult to find out the answers even to relatively simple questions about Irish sentencing practices, it said.

“Ireland’s new foray into this area as a result of the Judicial Council Act 2019 is perhaps emblematic of the limited sentencing data reform seen here.”

Statistics

The report examined sources of statistics on recorded crime, including from the Courts, Prison and Probation Services, the DPP and general analyses published by the Central Statistics Office.

It also examined statistical data derived from administrative datasets, research by Judicial Researchers and academics, the previous operation of the Irish Sentencing Information System, and interviewed individuals with expertise in the use and interpretation of sentencing data.

The available data is not currently sufficiently detailed or comprehensive to provide an accurate portrait of current sentencing practices, it concluded.

There were “profound limitations” in the data, including the lack of a large scale, offender specific database or an annual release of key sentencing indicators, as is in the case in some other jurisdictions, it said.

The problem was “particularly acute” in relation to the District Courts which deal with the overwhelming majority of offences to come before the courts and have significant sentencing powers.

The “modest” progress that has been made concerning data on trial court sentencing practice has typically been the result of judicial initiatives, it said. It welcomed the Court of Appeal’s compilation of a “very useful” spreadsheet of some 830 judgments of that court from its establishment in 2014 to August 2021 containing guidance relating to sentencing.

However, it noted that guidance from the appeal courts on sentences has tended not to focus on the District Courts as the issues before the latter rarely come before the appeal courts.

Data limitation is problematic, according to the report, “because it is only when reliable information is available that useful guidelines that are likely to be respected by trial courts can be drawn up”. Better sentencing information would also appear necessary to support efforts to bolster public confidence, it added.

Computer systems of the Garda, courts, prisons and probation service are not configured to share details of offences or offenders, it noted. Pointing out that there are distinct elements in how each agency records and classifies events, it said it would be “a good start” if all the agencies could agree on a uniform categorisation of offences.

In the absence of adequate official data, newspapers have played a distinct role as a source of information on sentencing that is “concerning”, the report said. Some 50 years of research in various jurisdictions showed newspaper reports of sentencing can be “hugely problematic” in terms of their selection of cases and presentation of case facts, it said.

The research also showed that biased, in the sense of unrepresentative, media coverage “is largely responsible for the huge public misperceptions of sentencing and sentencing trends”.