Huge fall-off in the use of suspended sentences for crimes
There has been a major drop-off in the use of suspended sentences as punishment for a variety of crimes, according to a new report.
Partial or full suspensions of prison terms can be handed down in appropriate cases to incentivise rehabilitation and deter convicted people from reoffending.
However, an analysis by the Law Reform Commission of outcomes in Circuit Court cases over a 12-year period shows a significant decline in their use by the judiciary.
It found that in 2006, 40pc of all sanctions imposed in the court were suspended, compared to just 17pc in 2017.
The decline was particularly marked for sexual offences, where the percentage of cases where sentences were suspended fell from 37pc in 2006 to just 10pc in 2017.
Some 47pc of assault cases attracted a suspended sentence in 2006, a percentage that shrank to just 22pc by 2017.
There were also slumps in suspended sentences for drugs cases (from 46pc to 19pc) and firearms cases (from 41pc to 17pc) in the same period.
The precise reasons for the drop-offs are unclear due to a lack of data.
This information deficit means, for example, that the commission could not say with confidence whether or not judges were following key sentencing principals set down in case law.
But the commission’s report speculated the trend could be due to a series of judicial reviews and constitutional challenges taken after legislation regarding judicial powers to suspend sentences was introduced in 2006.
It also said a number of practical and procedural difficulties with the law, which make it cumbersome in practice, may have played a part in “judicial reticence” to enforce the legislation.
In its report, the commission, which advises the Government on law reform, advocates the continued use of suspended prison terms in appropriate cases.
It also calls for further research to understand what was behind the decline and for key sentencing principals to be included in any guidelines drawn up for judges by the Judicial Council’s sentencing committee.
The report said suspended sentences should continue to be treated as compatible with the sentencing aims of retribution, deterrence and rehabilitation.
It said factors such as an absence of prior convictions, a guilty plea, remorse, co-operation with authorities, good character, age, illness, prospects of employment or education, prospects of rehabilitation, and family circumstances were particularly relevant mitigating factors for judges to take into account when considering the suspension of a sentence.
The report recommended that the use of suspended terms should be confined to adults and should not be expanded to child offenders.
It said detention of children was predominantly a welfare issue – while imprisonment of adults was primarily a punishment.
The report advised against the introduction of a separate sentencing regime for white-collar crime – an area where there has long been a perception of lenient sentencing – but did say the area would also benefit from sentencing guidelines.
The commission said a balance needed to be struck between white-collar offenders receiving due credit for mitigation and ensuring the gravity of the offence was marked by an appropriate sentence.
In particular, this should involve an assessment of the societal and individual harm caused by the offending.