DPP not pandering to media on sentencing
Public’s fear of crime out of kilter with real risks but jail terms must be scrutinised
The DPP has reiterated the call for sentencing guidelines. This is a call that should be heeded. Photograph: Frank Miller
From time to time the debate about crime and punishment becomes unusually heated. More often than not this is on account of a perception that judges are treating serious offenders with kid gloves.
This week the Court of Appeal found that the 4½-year prison sentences imposed on two cousins for a burglary in Doon, Co Limerick, were unduly lenient. This followed an application by the Director of Public Prosecutions for a review.
The crime caused a high level of public alarm because it took place in a rural area, the burglars had targeted several houses that day, and the owner arrived while the intruders were in his home, collapsed and died of a heart attack.
The Irish Daily Mail declared that the Court of Appeal’s decision heralded “a great day for justice”, described rural burglaries as “a serious social plague”, and demanded greater political involvement in sentencing. The newspaper suggested that the review called for by the DPP vindicated its campaign for harsher justice.
There are a number of issues here that merit consideration.
The first is the extent to which public fears may be out of kilter with the risks faced.
There is no doubt that residential burglaries cause intense anxiety that ripples beyond the directly affected parties. People who believe they are increasingly under threat may modify their routines in ways that reduce their quality of life. This in turn may amplify their unease.
But there is no evidence of an upswing in the number of burglaries recorded by An Garda Síochána. Nationwide, there was a fall from 25,400 in 2010 to 18,400 in 2016. Outside Dublin the drop was even more pronounced: from 15,200 to 9,600.
If we limit attention to burglaries involving a weapon, the trend is in the same direction. The number of aggravated burglaries recorded nationally fell from 330 in 2010 to 220 in 2016. Once again, the decline was steeper outside Dublin, from 210 to 110.
These encouraging trends are supported by the results of victimisation surveys carried out by the Central Statistics Office which show that there has been no increase in households experiencing burglary and, furthermore, that this crime is a greater problem in urban than in rural areas.
The second issue concerns the supposed reluctance on the part of judges to impose tough sentences. Again, the evidence does not support such a view.
Last November, three men received sentences of 17, 15 and 14 years imprisonment respectively for two offences of aggravated burglary and false imprisonment in Pallasgreen, Co Limerick. Last May, two men who had received 20-year prison terms for their role in an aggravated burglary in Killenaule, Co Tipperary, saw their sentences reduced on appeal, but only to 18 years. Three of their co-accused failed in their appeals against the severity of sentences ranging from 12 to 15 years.
By any yardstick, these were harsh punishments that reflected the seriousness of the harm caused.
The third issue involves the suggestion that the DPP is filling a vacuum left by hesitant legislators. This too is a dubious claim. The option to have what appears to be an unduly lenient sentence reviewed is one of a number of important checks and balances in the justice system. It is a sensible measure that is used sparingly (56 times in 2016) and not always successfully.
The fourth issue is whether especially harsh sentences in particular cases may have some deterrent value. Studies of criminal decision-making show this effect is overestimated. Potential offenders give little consideration to the prospect of punishment, concentrating their minds instead on the likelihood that they will be caught. If the latter is assessed as minimal they will continue to offend even if penalties are increased.
This is not to imply that rural burglaries are of no consequence or that sentencing practice should be exempt from scrutiny and critique.
It cannot be denied that lives are adversely affected, and occasionally devastated, when the home is violated. But it is important that people have a realistic appreciation of the risk they face, and how this varies geographically, so they can make appropriate decisions about preventive measures. It is also essential to provide enhanced victim support and to advise those who have been targeted about the risk of a recurrence.
Neither can it be denied that public anger is inflamed when a punishment does not seem to fit a crime, and by wide variation in the way apparently similar cases are dealt with. Inconsistency is interpreted as arbitrariness or, worse, incompetence.
In this week’s proceedings, the DPP reiterated the call for sentencing guidelines. This is a call that should be heeded.
In the absence of better-quality information about the kinds of sentences that various crimes attract, and the factors that underpin the decisions of the courts, the demands for politicians to limit judicial discretion will become more difficult to resist. Such a development might satisfy certain tabloid newspapers but it would not be in the interests of justice.
Ian O’Donnell is professor of criminology at University College Dublin