Penal review wants drug laws eased

Laws in relation to people convicted of drug trafficking and gun possession should be eased, according to a major review of penal policy.

The study said that presumptive minimum sentences for serious drug-dealing — 10 years — and firearms possession — between five and 10 years — should be reviewed by the Government.

And it said that a ban on these offenders from receiving temporary release from prison should be removed.

The Strategic Review of Penal Policy has also recommended that the monetary threshold above which the minimum sentence applies for serious drug dealing should be increased from its current value of €13,000.

It rejected recommendations from the State’s legal advisory body for the introduction of a range of minimum sentences for murder. The Law Reform Commission said the mandatory life sentence for murder was “misleading” as offenders are released after serving a certain period, subject to conditions.

The penal policy study has also proposed an enhanced form of remission, or early release, beyond the current automatic 25% up to one-third. This would be given to inmates who earned it from good behaviour to rehabilitation.

The 127-page report, which took almost two years to complete, was published yesterday by Frances Fitzgerald, the justice minister.

She said she has asked her officials to draw up proposals regarding the 43 recommendations which could be implemented over the short, medium and long term.

“It is clear that the group adopted a progressive and pragmatic approach,” she said. “As minister for justice, I believe our future penal policy must be focused on two key goals — punishment and prevention.”

She said that while prison must continue for “serious and serial offenders” it was not the only solution for those convicted of lesser and non-violent offences.

Ms Fitzgerald said public safety was paramount, but said there was a better chance of that if offenders are worked with in supervised community schemes. She said she wanted the judiciary to use the options that were there more.

Figures in the report show there were 2,354 community service orders in 2013, compared to 2,738 in 2011. This is despite the introduction of legislation obliging judges to first consider community sanctions when weighing up a prison sentence.

In the same period, the number of people committed to jail for the non payment of fines rose from 7,514 in 2011 to 8,121 in 2013. The latter figure accounted for just over half of all committals in that year. Ms Fitzgerald said the long-awaited implementation of the Fines Act can progress after the Courts Service put the payment system of fines out to tender.

Elsewhere, the report said that a major refurbishment programme in female section of Limerick Prison has made “little progress”.

The group said it was “particularly concerned” with the facilities and services there.

Penal policy proposals

-Extend Youth Diversion Programme (which diverts children up to 18 out of the criminal courts) to 18-21-year-olds. In 2012, around 1,160 (9%) of committals to jail were aged 18-21.

-Extend the Adult Cautioning Scheme (which is also outside the criminal system) to other offences. Between 2006 and 2013 a total of 67,765 such cautions were recorded.

-Carry out a pilot for a community court, which would deal with local, low-level crimes and offending behaviour.

-“Weekend sentencing” for certain offenders in open prisons, allowing them maintain employment, education and family links.

-Open prison and step-down facilities for female offenders.

-Greater focus on education, training, addiction treatment and counselling for inmates and attention to arranging accommodation and social supports on release.

-Judges be required to set out in writing their reasons for imposing a custodial sentence.


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