Serious drug offenders twice as likely to go to prison as they were a decade ago

New figures suggest that judges have become more punitive on such offenders since 2011

Serious drug dealers and drug mules are almost twice as likely to receive a prison sentence as they were a decade ago.

They are also about twice as likely to receive the mandatory minimum 10-year sentence which legislation says must be handed down for serious drug offences except in exceptional circumstances.

Figures obtained by The Irish Times suggest that, contrary to widespread perception, judges have become more punitive on serious drug offenders since 2011.

Nineteen per cent of the 234 offenders convicted of possessing more than €13,000 of drugs in 2017 and 2018 received a suspended sentence instead of a prison term, according to sentencing data released under Freedom of Information legislation. This figure which has declined every year since 2011/2012 when it was 38 per cent.


By comparison, 58 per cent of those convicted in the Circuit Court of possession of online child abuse material are spared a prison term.

The maximum sentence for possession of more than €13,000 worth of drugs for sale or supply is life imprisonment with the legislation mandating a 10-year minimum term unless there are “exceptional circumstances”.

Drug mules

The legislation was part of a raft of measures introduced in the late 1990s following the murders of journalist Veronica Guerin and Garda Jerry McCabe.

Since then critics have maintained the law unfairly targets low-level mules who are forced to hold drugs by those higher up the criminal ladder.

"We know that mandatory minimum custodial sentencing is expensive and largely ineffective," said the head of the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) Fíona Ní Chinnéide. "Instead of introducing ineffective laws that will require more prison spaces, we need investment in community policing, community sanctions, housing, mental health and addictions services."

Calling for the abolition of the mandatory minimum sentence in 2013, the Law Reform Commission said the drugs trade "adapted" to the new sentencing regime "by using expendable couriers to hold and transport drugs".

Although the law states offenders should receive at least 10 years, save in “exceptional and specific” circumstances, in practice a 10-year sentence is the exception rather than the rule. Typically judges treat factors such as guilty pleas and garda co-operation, as amounting to exceptional circumstances, an interpretation which has been accepted by the superior courts.

However the figures suggest the proportion of offenders receiving the minimum term is increasing.

In 2017/18, 7 per cent of offenders received 10 years or more (including suspended portions). Between 2011 and 2015 this figure was three per cent.

In 2018, judges handed down a total 701.75 prison years to serious drug offenders, of which 284½ were suspended. This was a large increase on 2017, when 446½ years were handed down with 190.7 years suspended.

The average sentence, including suspended portions, across both years was 4.89 years. The average effective prison term was 2.86 years.

The longest sentence handed down in 2017 and 2018 was 15 years which was imposed on Sean MacManus of Baldoyle, Dublin, for his role running a sophisticated cocaine laboratory in Cork.

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher is Crime and Security Correspondent of The Irish Times