Seanad debates

Thursday, 11 July 2019

Parole Bill 2016: Committee and Remaining Stages


10:30 am

Photo of Marie Louise O'DonnellMarie Louise O'Donnell (Independent) | Oireachtas source

I move amendment No. 3:

In page 24, between lines 40 and 41, to insert the following:“(11) When imposing sentence upon a person, a sentencing judge may impose a specified period during which that person shall not be eligible for parole, to include any sentence that the court may determine over and above the minimum period as set down in subsection (1)(a)above.”.

I thank the Minister of State for his patience. I am very much in favour of the Bill, aspects of which are excellent. I have grave concerns about one matter, namely, the fact that version of the Bill introduced in 2016 became the subject of political theft last week. Fianna Fáil Senators know that the version before us is completely different from the version Deputy O'Callaghan originally brought forward.

There was a provision to give the court discretion to decide on a set tariff that must be served before parole can be considered for the offence of murder and only murder. That is what it was - no more and no less. I do not agree with covering eligibility for parole that has been radically altered. Section 24, if not quite gone, is certainly unrecognisable. It has been rewritten extremely badly because much of it cannot be understood.

The most serious section of the Bill, as I read it a week ago, has been erased. The omitted section stated, "When imposing sentence upon a person, a sentencing judge may impose a specified period during which that person shall not be eligible for parole" in respect of first degree murder, which I accept is a filmic term. That has been eradicated - magicked away. I was led to believe that what I am seeking to do via my Criminal Justice (Judicial Discretion) (Amendment Bill) would be somewhat dealt with in this Parole Bill. Representatives of the Irish Penal Reform Trust informed me with great glee that this section had been deleted while they were lobbying for their amendments. They indicated that we must make communities safer and use prisons sparingly. They believe in early prison release. They believe that all aspects of parole should be transparent, fair and coherent. I also believe that. Political cowardice has won the day, however, by virtue of the galloping hordes of those with offender anxiety of biblical proportions - not offenders themselves, with whom I have worked through the years - who stand up for those barbarians who ruined families and communities by committing murder.

The net effect of this recent legislative evisceration is simple. If we accept the Bill as it stands, whereby a court may under no circumstances hand down or even recommend a set tariff to be served with a mandatory life framework, we are saying that our judges should have no discretion within the life framework when it comes to the most heinous of crimes. The political effect of the theft of this simple but effective section by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, which has acquiesced, means that we have now given legislative imprimaturto a transfer of what is a blindingly obvious judicial function, sentencing, into the hands of the Parole Board. Sentencing should be transparent fair and coherent; it is not. When it comes to murder, it is uncertain. The offence of murder requires a life sentence, but it does not mean life. I was asking that, when handing down a sentence, a judge may impose a specified period during which the person involved shall not be eligible for parole. That was all I was saying in respect of murder - wilful, powerful, violent, purposeful murder.

Fine Gael is afraid of making real and genuine decisions and is influenced by quangos. The Irish Penal Reform Trust is trying to tell it and me what to do. Sociologists are trying to tell me and everybody else what to do. Academics are writing papers telling me and everybody else what to do. In the end, bravery gets lost. Fianna Fáil is worse. Deputy O'Callaghan's Bill is now unrecognisable. They were jumping up and down praising it. If I were to ask Fianna Fáil Senators if they could tell me the difference between Deputy O'Callaghan's Bill as it came to the House and the Bill as it stands today, I bet they would not pass that exam.

The Parole Board is to become a Minister in the form of a committee. The Minister has no power, no hand, act or part. His role is over and our role has been taken away. It is the handover to the executive. It is happening everywhere with individual voices getting lost. The representatives of the Irish Penal Reform Trust campaigned for the implementation of a statutory parole system, fully independent of political control and they have got their way. They should be here; they are now at ministerial level. No one here is responsible. No Minister is responsible anymore. The executive, the Parole Board, is now responsible for everything to do with release. The buck stops with it and we all know what happens when committees are in charge. When an executive is in charge there is no baseline responsibility. I know the answer - the Parole Board is now a kind of government in itself. The board is the military wing of the entity seeking to bring about this legislative coup and the Irish Penal Reform Trust is surely its political master. There is no corner of mindless liberality to which this organisation will not go to ensure offender-led justice. Are we now saying that the offenders are running the system and the victims are to be left hurling from the ditch? That seems to be what is happening. Are the great voices to be silenced? Executives do not get blamed. They are the system and the system is never wrong and always offers a place to hide.

What of the victims? I have met hundreds of family members of victims of murder. Those children, mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters outlined how their lives had been impacted upon, their feelings and the internal eternal damage caused by the deaths of their sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, aunts and uncles. However, the Irish Penal Reform Trust is very concerned about the potential impact of victim input on parole outcomes. It has stated, "Where submissions by victims are permitted, the legislation should provide for what can be included."Senator Bacik, who was involved in developing victim impact statements, should look carefully at that.

Who thought it was a good idea to get rid of my section in the Bill? Who believes it is right to ignore the victims of murder, or that a judge should not be allowed impose a specified period during which a person shall not be eligible for parole? This Bill, in its current state, shows that our judicial system is based purely on reform, rather than punishment of any kind. One is told there is something wrong with them if they mention punishment. Judges are not even allowed suggest a specified period without parole, even for the gravest crime of the willful, violent taking of a life. Even when I argue like this, people do not believe me. I was an educationalist all my life, and I believe totally in rehabilitation and change. I have atoned for my own sins for most of my life, and have forgiven the sins of others.

I also believe in equality before the law, and the Irish Penal Reform Trust, IPRT, wrote to me again today to point out to me why I am wrong about this Bill. It has referred, throughout its summary of the Bill and its subsequent lobbying, to clarity, transparency, and fairness. Going though its arguments is like reading the memorare, because every second sentence is about clarity, transparency and fairness. Where is the clarity, transparency and fairness for victims and their families? There is no certainty in mandatory life sentences. A family member of a murder victim told me they will never get justice, because nobody ever believes murder will happen to them or their families. They do not believe it because it is too ugly, and they never think it will come their way. I am offering clarity, transparency and fairness under the auspices of certainty in this section. That is all I am offering. One cannot have clarity, transparency, or fairness without certainty.

In this section, the Government appears entirely incapable of walking even a few centimetres in the shoes of the families and communities of homicide victims. Is the Minister of State so lacking in any kind of emotional or legislative maturity that, until he holds his own brutally murdered son or daughter in a morgue, he will be incapable of understanding that offender-led justice means only one thing - victims for the criminal classes? I am speaking about murder.

The Minister of State, quangos, advisers, and groups lack bravery and I am now questioning my lifelong loyalty to Fine Gael. I saw the Government's lack of judgment when dealing with farmers yesterday. I have also seen it both generally and in the areas of health and housing, but it has now come to my door. I am a patron of AdVIC, and I have spent years dealing with people who have been destroyed forever by what has happened to them, but we are now coming up with legislation for offenders. I have hundreds of files about this. I want to see the same equality and balance for the offended as for the offender, in cases of first-degree murder. I am not referring to anything but first-degree murder, and I do not want to get involved in anything else because those are issues for the Judiciary. Neither I, my colleagues in AdVIC, the wider group of families who have lost members to violent murder, or the public will sit idly by any more when we open newspapers every day to be met with stories of violent murder. This terrified Oireachtas continues to make a mockery of the lives of innocent victims. I demand that this section, which states, "When imposing sentence upon a person, a sentencing judge may impose a specified period during which that person shall not be eligible for parole", be reinstated. I disagree with its omission and will call for a vote on it.


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