The Law Reform Commission said that while the motives behind the laws were “understandable”, they had not acted as a deterrent and had led to “inconsistent and disproportionate sentencing”.
In its Mandatory Sentences report, the commission calls for the presumptive mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years for dealing drugs worth over €13,000 to be repealed.
“It has been observed that the majority of those being sentenced under the presumptive sentencing regime are low-level drug mules rather than high-level drug barons,” it said.
It said the result of the act was that “expendable couriers” were used by gangs to hold and store drugs. It said these were “generally vulnerable and desperate people”, often drug addicts who were exploited “rather than hardened criminals”.
It said the law was unlikely to deter these people nor reduce the overall level of criminality given there was a “virtually limitless pool” of people to do the job.
It said the level of drug crime had “increased grea-tly” during the period the laws were in force. It said the “one-strike rule” was a “relatively severe system of sentencing” by international standards. The law had “constrained” the ability of the courts to take account of individual circumstances.
The commission recommended a more structured, guidance-based sentencing system as an alternative.
It made similar findings in relation to presumptive sentences of between five and 10 years — enacted in 2006 — for firearms possession.
In relation to mandatory life terms for murder, the report said the provision was “misleading” as offenders are released after serving a certain period, subject to return to prison if release conditions are breached.
The report said Ireland was the only country in the common law world — including England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand — which did not have a system setting minimum terms for murders.
It said the courts cannot distinguish between cases at the upper end and the lower end of the scale. It said: “Murder can be committed in a variety of circumstances and involve different levels of moral culpability.” Some murders are conducted in the “heat of the moment” while others are planned and premeditated. In addition some murders may exhibit “a level of appalling depravity or sadism”.
The commission also recommended establishing the Parole Board on an independent statutory basis and for a Judicial Council to publish suitable guidelines on sentencing.
*On Thursday, the Irish Examiner will publish a special investigation supplement on crime in Ireland.