Life gets longer in Irish prisons

Research on sentencing shows up inconsistencies


Each year – on average – the Irish courts impose 21 life-sentences on offenders, and in 2013 there were 319 prisoners serving such sentences ; less than 8 per cent of the overall prison population. That reflects a marked increase in recent years, rising from 4.4 per cent in 2001. A life sentence does not mean a lifetime served in prison. The sentence served can vary greatly, as the courts may not specify the length of sentence at the outset.

And in recent years some who have secured early release, but who subsequently breached their release conditions, have been returned to jail. In the 1970s and 1980s life prisoners spent an average of 7.5 years in detention before securing early release. But in 2013, the life sentence prisoners released that year had spent an average of some 17.5 years in jail.

NUI Galway lecturer Dr Diarmuid Griffin in his study on life sentence prisoners and the operations of the Parole Board of Ireland (PBI), highlights these figures. His detailed analysis pinpoints serious deficiencies in how the parole system operates, and sets out how it can be improved. The PBI, he suggests, should be put on a statutory footing, and the board – rather than the Minister for Justice – should make the final decision on all early release cases. Some 84 per cent of the board’s recommendations on a prisoner’s release are accepted.

All too often some of those appointed to the PBI have been selected on party political grounds, rather than on their suitability for a job that involves interviewing those eligible for parole, and carefully assessing their case. Dr Griffin favours a complete depoliticisation of the parole system, via a wholly independent board exercising full responsibility for its operations. Certainly board appointments made solely on merit would inspire greater public confidence in the PBI’s professionalism and independence.

It would also help to remove any suspicion of background political pressure swaying the board’s judgement.