Parole reform needed: The scales of justice are out of kilter

Parole reform needed: The scales of justice are out of kilter

Justice, the ancient Greeks taught us, is blind. It is to be administered in courts impartially and objectively.

But does that mean the consequences of a crime for victims and their family and friends — and for public safety generally — count for naught when a trial is over and an offender has served his or her time or is looking forward to parole?

There is one area of Irish law that does attempt to answer the question about the role of justice after a prisoner is freed to rejoin society.

The 2001 Sex Offenders Act places a range of legal requirements on those who have served their sentences or who have been released on parole.

But, so far, our judicial system has little positive to say about the consequences of homicide, its debris, when an offender walks free.

It is a problem from which too many in politics and the legal profession have turned away since the gradual phasing out of the death penalty began in 1964 with abolition for all but the murder of gardaí, prison officers, and diplomats, and ended with its complete elimination in 2001.

As our special reports today show, those close to homicide victims — some of them killed with a savagery that cannot be comprehended — have much to say about this appalling gap in our law books.

It is a gap that allows murderers to return to the scenes of their crimes and the vicinities in which the families and friends of their victims still live, even on escorted day releases before their first parole hearings.

Where, bereaved families ask with warranted anxiety — especially when it is their suspicion that an offender has shown no remorse, whatever a parole board might conclude — is the justice for us?

Their two principal requests are straightforward and practicable: The immediate enactment of revised parole legislation that was approved in July last year and would lift the minimum term of a life sentence from seven to 12 years, and the imposition of a post-release exclusion zone that would prevent murderers returning to locations where their presence could offend local sensitivities or give rise to concern about the safety of victims’ families.

The response of the Department of Justice, given by an official, was doubtless intended to be empathetic.

The minister is aware of the impact of these crimes … they are dreadful, life-changing events from which recovery is “difficult” … the distress caused is unimaginable. But what comes next is the cold waffle that we have come to expect from bureaucracies that have heard an anguished cry but haven’t listened to it.

“The role of the Parole Board has always been to make expert recommendations on the management of long-term prisoners’ sentences.

The system of parole seeks to achieve a balance of rights and needs — taking account of the rights and needs of victims, of offenders and of society in general.

Balance? The rights of offenders? The ministry is being told in language that cannot be misunderstood that these families believe the State’s concern for public safety remains secondary to the welfare of prisoners, and that the scales of justice need to be corrected.

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