Prison sentencing guidelines to factor in costs of punishments

Judges eager for new guidelines covering domestic and sexual violence cases

Prison costs: Irish judges are, for the first time, to have reference to a range of sentencing guidelines for particular offences. Photograph: Getty

Prison costs: Irish judges are, for the first time, to have reference to a range of sentencing guidelines for particular offences. Photograph: Getty

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The financial cost of sending people to prison, and those of other punishments such as community service, are to be considered as part of the preparation of new sentencing guidelines for judges.

The Sentencing Guidelines and Information Committee, which met for the first time last year, is researching Irish sentencing practices ahead of the preparation of guidance for the judiciary.

Under plans set out in the Judicial Council Act 2019, Irish judges are, for the first time, to have reference to a range of sentencing guidelines for particular offences, but they will not be bound by them. Until now, such guidelines have come only from the Court of Appeal and exist for a limited number of offences such as assault, manslaughter and rape.

The average cost of a staffed prison space last year was €80,445

Committee chairwoman and Supreme Court judge Ms Justice Iseult O’Malley told a conference, organised by the Irish Penal Reform Trust, there is now a legal requirement that the committee take the relative costs of sentencing options into account when developing guidelines.

Under current principles, judges usually do not have regard to the cost of a particular sentence. For example, the cost of imprisoning an offender versus sentencing them to community service is not typically factored in. The average cost of a staffed prison space last year was €80,445.

Ms Justice O’Malley said matters of cost “have traditionally been seen as matters for the executive, and not part of the administration of justice.”

Individual cases

She did not think it was likely that “individual judges in individual cases will have to calculate the cost of sentences they have in mind” as this could mean sentences varied “according to the economic health of the country”.

Rather, she said, it would be a matter for the committee to “work out” when drafting the guidelines. As well as considering costs, the committee will also be responsible for promoting consistency in sentences and public confidence in the criminal justice system.

Ms Justice O’Malley said the committee had carried out an informal survey of the bench and found that “certain themes came through quite strongly” including guidance on sentences for sexual offences, driving offences leading to deaths, and offences committed “in the context of a past or ongoing relationship between victim and offender”.