The principle of using prison as a last resort, which is widely accepted by Irish judges, should be abandoned in the case of persistent offenders, the Department of Justice has said.
The comments were in response to a call for submissions from the Law Reform Commission (LRC) on the use and efficacy of suspended sentences instead of prison for some crimes.
The department suggested that in some cases, judges are too reluctant to impose prison terms for serious offences such as manslaughter, assault causing harm or serious harm, sexual assault, rape, aggravated robbery and burglary.
A prison sentence should be imposed in the majority of such cases and “indeed, it could be argued that this presumption should be more closely observed in practice”, the department wrote.
A presumptive custodial sentence should also apply to ordinary robbery, an offence for which judges very often impose a suspended term.
The department noted case law states prison should be the norm for serious assaults but that there is evidence to suggest fully suspended sentences are not especially rare in such cases.
“Some such cases have caused considerable media commentary and public disquiet,” it wrote.
The submissions, which were released to The Irish Times following a Freedom of Information request, offer a rare insight into the thinking of the department, which is typically reluctant to be seen criticising judicial practice.
On the question of whether prison sentences should only be imposed as a last resort, the department said it is “questionable” if this should apply to “chronic recidivist offenders”. Repeatedly imposing suspended sentences on such offenders undermines the “last chance” reasoning so often cited by the courts, it wrote.
In the case of such offenders, the main aim should “perhaps” be imprisonment to protect the public interest, it said.
The department also submitted that prison should be the norm for cases of corporate manslaughter involving health and safety failings (eg poorly maintained equipment leading to the death of an employee), although it added mitigating factors might warrant a suspended sentence in many cases.
The LRC has noted a prison sentence has never been imposed for such offences.
On the subject of white collar crime, the department noted there are “undoubted public concerns” about perceived leniency towards such offenders. Sentencing guidelines for judges on the intangible but serious impact of such crimes could be beneficial, it said.
The LRC is due to issue a wide-ranging report on suspended sentences as part of its current programme on law reform.