Three-quarters of offenders convicted of drugs crimes which carry a minimum 10- year prison term are getting sentences shorter than that, analysis of court decisions shows.
Just 23% of those found guilty of possession, sale or supply or drugs valued at more than €13,000 got 10 or more years behind bars in the analysis of Court of Criminal Appeal decisions from 2009-2012.
That’s despite the intention when the minimum sentence was introduced in 1999 that it would be mandatory unless “exceptional and specific circumstances” existed.
According to the figures from the Irish Sentencing Information System, the exception is now the norm. Some 46% of offenders got five to ten years; 18% got two to five years; and 3% got less than two years.
The finding adds weight to calls by the Law Reform Commission for repeal of the minimum sentence which the Commission last year said led to “the adaptation of the illegal drugs trade to the sentencing regime by using expendable couriers to hold and transport drugs”.
Justice Minister Alan Shatter has hinted he may abandon the idea, saying recently the Oireachtas should be “cautious” about legislating for mandatory sentencing. He is awaiting the recommendations of a working group he set up on penal policy which is due to report shortly.
Common “exceptional and specific circumstances” included the absence of previous convictions; the unlikelihood of reoffending; and demonstration of remorse.
Foreign nationals were also more likely to get reduced sentences as were offenders whose role was that of courier, mule or assistant. The level of duress the offender was under was also a factor in escaping the mandatory minimum sentence as was their age, health, vulnerability and, in the case of addicts, prospects of rehabilitation.
In all cases the value of the drugs had the biggest influence on sentence. For example the €440 million haul of cocaine at Dunlough Bay in West Cork in 2007 resulted in sentences of 35 years, 30 years and 25 years for the men convicted.
Those were the longest sentences for drug trafficking ever handed down here. No one got a life sentence, however, which is the top sanction for the crime.
The other major factor was the type of drug involved. The analysis found the Court of Criminal Appeal in recent years was increasingly getting tough on more dangerous drugs such as cocaine and heroin.
One man was convicted of having €12m worth of cannabis resin and another man of having €6.2m worth of heroin. Both got 18 years because although one haul was worth almost twice the other, the judge noted that the heroin seized posed: “the most acute risks for those caught in the tragic lair of addiction”.
In cases where the value of the drugs involved was less than €13,000 and the 10-year minimum sentence did not apply, the most common sentence imposed was 2-5 years.
Some 75% of offenders fell into this category while 15% got less than two years and 5% got suspended sentences.
Cocaine was the drug involved in 45% of all cases analysed, heroin, 25%; cannabis, 21%, ecstasy and other amphetamines, 6%; MDMA, 2% and LSD, 1%. Some 93% of offenders were male.
* Full details of the analysis will be published tomorrow on www.irishsentencing.ie.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved