Sentencing regime for serious child offenders must be detailed in law, legal body says

Law Reform Commission report defends use of suspended sentences for white-collar crime

Sentencing protocols for children who commit murder must be put on a statutory footing, the Law Reform Commission (LRC) has said.

In its latest report, focusing on suspended sentences, the LRC reviewed the sentences imposed on the two boys who murdered 14-year-old Ana Kriégel in Dublin in 2018.

The 14-year-old boys both received lengthy sentences which will be reviewed in several years. The commission noted the practice of sentencing youths who have committed serious offences to a reviewable term in detention has grown as a result of a “vacuum” in legislation.

Currently, Irish law does not allow judges to impose suspended sentences on underage offenders, which severely limits sentencing options in cases of serious offending like murder and rape.


Underage murderers

Life sentences can be imposed on underage murderers but, unlike in murderers committed by adults, they are not mandatory.

The LRC report details several recent cases of lengthy but reviewable terms being imposed on underage offenders, including the sentencing of a 15-year-old boy for the attempted murder of a young woman in Dún Laoghaire in 2017. The boy received an 11-year term with a review after seven years.

“The reviewable sentence of detention is an important and useful sentencing option in the sentencing of child offenders,” the LRC said.

“Furthermore, the reviewable sentence of detention provides valuable flexibility in dealing with children convicted of serious offences: it reflects the welfare and rehabilitative ideals underpinning the juvenile justice system, while at the same time ensuring that serious offending behaviour by child offenders be met with a punitive sanction.”

However it noted the sentencing model is not detailed in law and that it also conflicts with case law laid down by the Supreme Court.

The commission recommended the practice of imposing reviewable sentences on underage offenders should continue but that it needs to be put on a statutory footing.

As part of its research for the 349-page report, the commission conducted an analysis of the use of suspended sentences across most major offending categories in recent years and found the imposition of fully-suspended sentences fell dramatically between 2006 and 2017.

In 2006, 41 per cent of all sentences involved fully suspended sentences. By 2017 this had fallen to 17 per cent.

Sexual offences

There was a particularly large drop in suspended sentences for sexual offences – from 37 per cent to 10 per cent of cases – and for drugs offences which fell from 46 per cent to 17 per cent.

The LRC also endorsed the idea of fully-suspended sentences for white-collar crime offences, although it said some offending will deserve an immediate custodial term.

White-collar crime represents a particular sentencing challenge, it noted, as individual offences can cause great damage to society but offenders themselves often have no previous convictions and will find it easier to rehabilitate back into society due to the fact they often have greater resources and education.

As a result, there is a general perception that white-collar offenders are treated more leniently by the courts, it said.

The commission said “the suspended sentence is a particularly appropriate sanction to simultaneously balancing these conflicting elements”.

However it stressed “in some cases of a sufficiently serious nature” an immediate jail term might be appropriate.

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher is Crime Correspondent of The Irish Times