Vast majority of offences still have no sentencing guidelines

Irish judges can impose any sentence they like once it’s under maximum prison term in the legislation

The wide variation in the severity of punishments faced by convicted burglars is another symptom of a problem which has bedevilled the judiciary for years – the lack of official sentencing guidelines for the vast majority of offences.

Unlike the UK, which has a huge range of official guidelines, in theory Irish judges can impose whatever sentence they like as long as it’s under the maximum prison term laid out in the legislation.

There are exceptions to this. For large drug-dealing cases, judges are expected to impose at least 10 years (although this is usually ignored), while the offence of murder carries a mandatory life sentence. And in 2014 the Court of Appeal laid out guidelines for a small number of offences such as serious assault and firearm possession.

However, the vast majority of offences still have no sentencing guidelines. If you listen to some solicitors this means the severity of a sentence can be dependent on factors such as whether the judge found parking easily that morning or how hungry he or she is.


There is probably some truth to this; in 2011 an Israeli study of more than 1,000 hearings found judges gave more lenient decisions at the start of the day and immediately after lunch.

Of course, most judges put more thought into a sentence than this, and draw on factors such as previous sentencing practices and the mitigation in a case when deciding a sentence.

Nevertheless, guidelines are an issue which comes up again and again in public debate. Last month Minister for Transport Shane Ross called for strict guidelines for judges in dealing with drink-driving offences, and said the discrepancies in sentences for more serious crime were "unacceptable and sometimes absolutely inexplicable". The new Chief Justice Frank Clarke recently signalled he is in favour of a sentencing guidelines system similar to that operating in the UK.

Burglary sentencing

The figures on burglary sentencing released to The Irish Times show that if you are convicted of breaking into a house in Limerick you have a far greater chance of not being jailed than if you committed the same offence in Dublin.

Of course, there are other factors which may be hidden in the data. It’s possible the average Dublin burglar has a longer record of previous convictions, making a jail term more likely. However, the fact that some rural District Courts have a near 100 per cent imprisonment rate belies this somewhat.

The District Court deals with most burglary offences, with only the most serious or persistent offenders being sent forward for trial to the Circuit Criminal Court, where judges can impose harsher sentences.

District Court judges can only impose a maximum sentence of one year for a single offence. For burglary they also have a wide range of non-custodial sentencing options available to them such as community service orders, fines and probation.

There is some indication that imprisonment rates are linked to rising crime rates – that judges who see a rising number of burglary cases are more likely to jail individual offenders.

Imprisonment rate

In Dublin the number of burglaries has risen almost every year since the recession. This has broadly coincided with a rise in the imprisonment rate. In other areas of the country sentences have become less severe as the burglary rate dropped.

However the relationship between crime rate and imprisonment rate is not universal. Instead, the different imprisonment regimes could well have more to do with the proclivities of individual judges.

For example, Limerick’s imprisonment rate dropped from 83 per cent in 2011 to 62 per cent in 2012. This drop coincided with the promotion of one of the District’s busiest judges, Tom O’Donnell, to the Circuit Court.