Life sentence prisoners served on average 18 years before being released

Almost all lifers are murders, many never in trouble with Garda until killing victim

Life sentence prisoners released from Irish jails last year had served an average of 18 years, the Parole Board has said.

Of the 21 life sentence prisoners recommended for parole in 2017, eight had no previous convictions before they committed a murder and were jailed for life.

Murder is a highly unusual crime in that it is the most serious offence and yet it is very often committed by people who have never come to the Garda’s attention before, but who kill within a relationship or in the heat of the moment.

The Parole Board, which reviews prisoners’ cases and recommends their release or continued detention, has also said the number of lifers in the Irish prison system reached 349 last year.


While that represents a continued increase, the length of time they are spending in jail has now reduced from a peak of over 20 years.

In 2011, the average length of a concluding life sentence reached 20 years for the first time. And the following year, 2012, life sentence prisoners released from jail had served an average of 22 years.

However, in the years since then the term of a life sentence has reduced, with last year’s average 18-year sentence in line with those reductions.

The average term served by “lifers” released from their sentences in the 1970s and 1980s was only 7½ years.

Between 2001 and 2013 the number of lifers in the prison system increased by 130 per cent, from 139 to 319. And in the years since then has increased another nine per cent.

The vast majority of lifers are convicted murderers. And the numbers serving life have increased as murders have become more common and as the Garda has secured convictions against more gangland killers.


The Parole Board said last year it recommended to Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan that 21 life sentence prisoners be released. By the end of the year, 14 had been released and the others were being readied to be freed.

Of the 21 lifers recommended and approved for release, 18 were men and three women.

However, while the board could recommend the release of lifers, and other long-sentence prisoners, it often declines to release prisoners.

In its annual report it said it received letters from the family’s of victims in which the “enormous pain and suffering” caused by some of the prisoners it was reviewing was made very clear.

"If a case involves murder, many family members are still experiencing severe trauma and mental health problems after the death of their loved one," said Parole Board chairman John Costello in the annual report for 2017.

“These letters are seriously considered by the board members before deciding on a recommendation.”

Life sentences are mandatory in all murder cases. They can also be impose for other forms of serious crime, such as rape, but rarely are.

The Parole Board can begin reviewing a life sentence prisoner after they have served seven years.

However, several reviews and another decade will elapse before the vast majority of life prisoners are recommended for freedom, or parole, by the board.

Once prisoners are recommended for parole, the minister of the day can approve or reject the recommendation.

If approved for release by the minster, lifers are generally granted temporary periods of freedom – from several hours, to a day or a weekend – to gradually prepare them to be freed and reintegrated back into society.

Once freed, they are at liberty under licence for the rest of their lives and can be returned to prison if recommended during annual reviews by the Probation Service.

Conor Lally

Conor Lally

Conor Lally is Security and Crime Editor of The Irish Times