Political factors key to deciding if long-term prisoners stay in jail

Study says overall murder rate and media profile of convict are factors in decision

Political factors and fears of adverse public reaction play a significant role in determining if long-serving prisoners are kept in jail, according to an extensive new study.

NUI Galway law lecturer Dr Diarmuid Griffin has found that the criteria which impact on whether or not someone sentenced to life in prison is released include the current overall murder rate and the media profile of the convict.

Criminal justice policies, particularly sentencing policy, have become more draconian in recent years. The number of life sentences handed down for serious crimes like murder is increasing across Europe, but the rate of increase in Ireland is significantly greater than average.

According to Dr Griffin's forthcoming book Killing Time, there were some 27,000 life-sentence prisoners in custody in Europe in 2014, an increase of 66 per cent since 2004.


In Ireland, the number of life-sentence prisoners increased by 78 per cent over the same period, and now stands at 352.

At the same time, the average length a life-sentence prisoner spends in prison has increased dramatically and consistently. In 1975, it was less than eight years, in 2004 it was 14 years, and in 2016 it was 22 years.

The vast majority – 95 per cent – of those currently serving a life term in Ireland have been convicted of murder, with sentences for manslaughter and rape making up the remainder. Life is the mandatory sentence for murder, and judges have no discretion in the matter.

Final decision

Life-sentence prisoners are assessed for release by the Parole Board, but the final decision lies with the Minister for Justice.

Dr Griffin, who interviewed three former ministers for justice and 14 current and former Parole Board members, found criteria which have little to do with the offender being assessed often decide if they are released or not.

“Members and ministers cited offenders with high media profiles as causing particular problems due to the potential political fallout arising from a recommendation and/or decision to release,” Dr Griffin said.

He said former ministers were “explicit that a decision to release a life-sentence prisoner presented a political risk”, and the potential for “adverse publicity, political criticism and personal electoral consequences” were cited as influencing factors .

“If you let a rapist out and the next thing he does is rape another person, whoever does it [orders their release]…whoever is responsible for it, will be visited with the responsibility for that act, so you do have to protect people,” one former minister said.

Dr Griffin examined the case of Malcolm MacArthur, who was Ireland's longest serving prisoner until his release in 2012 by then minister for justice Alan Shatter. MacArthur was sentenced to life in 1982 for two murders after one of the most high-profile manhunts in Irish history.

“I think he’s [MacArthur] now out, but it took an awful lot of time, and one of the reasons that he was kept in I think was that the politicians were just afraid of, you know that he would do something bizarre if he got out. I knew there was a zilch risk of reoffending,” one former justice minister told Dr Griffin.

Public opinion

Former justice ministers cited media coverage, particularly tabloid newspaper coverage, of high-profile murderers as being a factor in decisions.

“Obviously I had to be conscious of public opinion, and how it would affect politically both me and then my government. You always have one eye on what the people think in making decisions,” one former minister said.

In the past the media did not report on the release of high-profile criminals from prison; in 1976 there was no coverage of the fact that a man was released having served just six years for murdering his fiancé.

This has now changed, and the release of prisoners such as Larry Murphy attract significant and sustained media coverage which is often accompanied by public criticism of their early release.

One former minister said when he was in office people thought prison terms were very low, but he corrected that impression. “People had got to the notion thinking that a life sentence was seven years, and I mean that was often said on radio and television that people were getting out after seven years, and they didn’t believe that after I was finished.”

The rising murder rate in Ireland, particularly gangland murders, also contributed to a reluctance to release life-sentence prisoners, even in cases where the prisoner’s crime had nothing to do with organised crime.

One parole board member noted in a 2006 annual report that “so common had murder become that human life had been cheapened and that the board must react to that”.

Dr Griffin said making a decision on whether to release a prisoner based on factors outside their control “could prove counter-productive” in terms of their rehabilitation.

“What real incentive is there for a life-sentence prisoner to participate meaningfully when, despite being informed of the importance of engaging with the available services to reduce risk levels, there are additional insuperable barriers preventing a recommendation or decision to release?”

Individual cases

He also questioned if the length of life terms will decrease if the murder rate decreases. “If it is not appropriate to reduce time served in individual cases on the basis of an overall decrease in annual homicides it should not be acceptable to increase time served when there is a spike.”

The Parole Bill 2016 is currently before the Oireachtas. If passed in its current form it will introduce major reforms to the parole process. The final decision on whether to release life-sentence prisoners will rest with the Parole Board and not the Minister. Prisoners will also have to serve a minimum of 12 years before being considered for release.

The former ministers interviewed by Dr Griffin had a mixed reaction to a reduced role for politicians, with one suggesting the Parole Board should obtain the Minister’s opinion “in serious cases”.

Another former minister stated: “It is important to prevent a practice under which releases that should be granted are refused because of ministerial fear of adverse publicity and political criticism, with possible personal electoral consequences.”

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher is Crime and Security Correspondent of The Irish Times