THE GOVERNMENT will review the policy of mandatory sentences for certain drug offences, examine ways to get prisoners with mental health problems out of the prison system and enhance the internal complaints procedure for prisoners, the Minister for Justice announced last night.
Alan Shatter gave a wide-ranging speech at the Irish Penal Reform Trust’s annual lecture, stressing the importance of human rights principles in prison policy and the need to distinguish retribution from revenge.
Referring to the issue of mandatory sentencing, he said the number serving sentences for drug offences of 10 years or more had gone up from one in 2005 to 69 in 2008 and 35 in 2009. This was contributing to the “silting-up phenomenon” in prisons.
“The idea of imposing long mandatory sentences for serious offences has had undoubted intuitive appeal. But there is a growing body of evidence that the use of mandatory sentences does not make things better,” he said. Research showed using mandatory minimum sentences was the most cost-effective strategy only in the case of high-level dealers – the kingpins – but that in practice the sentencing power was more likely to be used to punish low-level offenders, the mules or users, he said.
“I also note that, in light of their negative experience of the effects of mandatory sentences, Michigan in the Unites States and the Northern Territories in Australia are retreating from this blunt criminal-law instrument.”
The Government was committed to reviewing this policy, through the drafting of a White Paper on crime and by asking the Law Reform Commission to examine the law on mandatory sentences.
He also said he would improve the treatment of victims in the criminal justice system by requiring criminal justice agencies by law to give them relevant information in a timely fashion.
Sending offenders to prison without tackling the underlying social conditions of their criminality – the lack of skills, education, and employment – while they are in prison only serves to reinforce the cycle of criminality, he said. Rehabilitation is not always possible, but where it is evidence-based, rehabilitative services have to be targeted at suitable offenders, adequately resourced, and the conditions for implementing them must be strictly met.
He also stressed the importance of community-based sanctions for many people at present in the prison system. The number in prison had increased by 50 per cent in the past five years. “I have heard no suggestion that we are 50 per cent safer because of this rise in imprisonment,” he said.
A change in mandatory sentencing for drug cases would be welcomed the Irish Penal Reform Trust said. It was “one of the key problems driving up the prison population” executive director Liam Herrick said.
Reducing prison overcrowding in the short term “has to be a priority” and would release pressure on the system making everything else easier to manage, he said.
(The Irish Times, 17th September 2011)