Thursday, 11 July 2019
Parole Bill 2016: Committee and Remaining Stages
I listened with courtesy to what Senator O'Donnell said. I acknowledge her great passion and commitment, and her work with AdVIC. I too have worked with AdVIC and have worked on victims' rights for many years. However, I have also worked with offenders, both as a criminal justice practitioner and as an activist. I take grave exception to the Senator's critiques of the IPRT and her attacks on that excellent organisation. I served on the board of the trust many years ago. IPRT is a non-governmental organisation. It is not a quango or an arm of the State and cannot be characterised as such. The trust has, over many years, taken brave and courageous stances in support of penal reform.
The IPRT's call for placing the Parole Board on statutory footing has not been made in isolation. Many others have called for it, including the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality, on which I was proud to serve as a member during the previous Seanad, along with Senator Conway, under the chairmanship of the Minister of State. In 2013, that committee recommended placing the parole process on a statutory footing. The Department of Justice and Equality has also acknowledged that need over many years, so it has not been called for by only one body or organisation. It is a well-established, important reform of our penal process. While we have a Parole Board, it needs a statutory framework, and that is important. Placing the Parole Board on a statutory footing has also been a long-standing policy of my own party.
This reform is not only in the best interests of offenders. Ensuring a structured programme for the release of persons serving long sentences, whether indeterminate life sentences for murder or any other long sentence, is also in the best interests of both victims and our society as a whole. The current practice, whereby persons are eligible for parole after seven years of a long sentence, will change under this section, and that minimum term will be extended to 12 years to give certainty to victims and their families. That term may be too long and may lengthen the time people serve, given that the average life sentence term served is 18 years. However, parole is a process and consideration of applications may start years before a person is released.
I also acknowledge Senator O'Donnell's great initiative in bringing forward opportunities for us to discuss life sentences for murder, and I was delighted to participate in that debate on her Bill. However, I cannot support this amendment - and I did not support her Bill - although I supported the opportunity to debate life sentencing. We should not have mandatory minimum sentencing in our laws generally, though it is provided for in other legislation. Indeed, sections 24(11) to (15), inclusive, of this section refer to presumptive minimum terms under firearms, drugs, and sex offences provisions. It would be better to do away with mandatory life sentences for murder and replace them with determinate sentencing, subject to a maximum of life imprisonment, as we have for manslaughter. Anyone who has worked in criminal justice will know that a conviction for murder may relate to a broad spectrum of human behaviour, or killing that may include premeditated, gangland crime on one end and less serious offences on the other. While each murder is deeply devastating for victim's family, an argument could be made for structured discretion in sentencing for murder, subject to the maximum of life imprisonment, just as there is for manslaughter and rape. That is the bigger reform I would like us to consider, but I accept that it is beyond the scope of this Bill.
This Bill provides for a sensible and structured statutory framework for the consideration of eligibility for release on parole of persons serving long-term sentences. I have critiqued some aspects of that. It is unfortunate that consideration is not given specifically to children, or those under 18 years old, who are serving life sentences in this section. Twelve years is a long time to wait before eligibility for parole in the life of a child. I will support Senator Ruane's amendment No. 4, which is coming up next, which would grant more flexibility in when someone can be considered eligible for parole. That would be a sensible reform.I commend the Irish Penal Reform Trust for its great work. There has been, at my instigation, an Oireachtas all-party group on penal reform, which has met quite a number of times over various years. We might reinstitute it in September. I hope all colleagues who have an interest in penal reform, particularly Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell, would attend those meetings and meet the Irish Penal Reform Trust, Advic and others to discuss how best to make progress on penal reform matters. The Judicial Council Bill is very important because it will provide for sentencing guidelines for the first time and we will then see the structured discretion in sentencing that we need. The Parole Bill is an important reform, flawed in some ways with an unfortunately short timeframe in which we have to debate it, but very much worthy and deserving of our support. The Irish Penal Reform Trust is quite right to support it, not just in the interests of offenders but in the interests of victims and all of us.