Irish Times view on mandatory minimum sentences: Still a bad idea

Major criminals realise they can avoid danger by forcing their addicts to hold drugs

While the establishment of Cab has been an undoubted successes, the drugs legislation is a different story. Photograph: David Sleator

While the establishment of Cab has been an undoubted successes, the drugs legislation is a different story. Photograph: David Sleator

 

When the 10-year presumptive mandatory minimum sentence for large-scale drug dealing was introduced 21 years ago, it was against a backdrop of fear. Drugs were flooding into the State in previously unheard-of volumes, filling the coffers of newly ascendant criminal gangs such as the one that murdered journalist Veronica Guerin in 1996.

The government of the day introduced a raft of initiatives, including the expansion of the powers of the Special Criminal Court, the establishment of the Criminal Assets Bureau (Cab) and the passage of legislation mandating a minimum 10-year sentence for anyone caught with £10,000 worth of drugs, save in “exceptional” circumstances.

While Cab has been an undoubted success, the drugs legislation is a different story. Major criminals quickly realised they could avoid danger by forcing their addicts or other vulnerable people to hold the drugs. With few exceptions, it is these proxies who have borne the brunt of the legislation, not their bosses. This trend was noted by the Law Reform Commission in 2013 when it called for the abolition of the law, a recommendation which has been ignored.

The deficiency of the law is not lost on judges, who rarely impose the minimum term and instead cite “exceptional” circumstances to justify a much lighter sentence. In 2017-2018 just 7 per cent received 10 years or more (although figures suggest this is an upward trend).

The killing and dismemberment of teenager Keane Mulready-Woods last month shocked the wider community, and has understandably led to calls for more to be done to tackle serious offending. It is disappointing that some of the proposed solutions are as unimaginative as they were two decades ago. For example, Fianna Fáil has called for mandatory minimum one-year sentences for anyone caught with a knife in public, a measure which could add about 2,000 extra prisoners a year to our already-full prisons.

The violence plaguing communities such as Drogheda and Coolock must be confronted but not by repeating the mistakes of the past.

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