Thursday, 11 July 2019
Parole Bill 2016: Committee and Remaining Stages
We are not really dealing with sentencing in the Bill, and perhaps some of the Senators' points can be explored further in the context of Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell's other Bill, which is on Second Stage before this House. The other Bill is not dead, it is very much alive. Parole is a separate matter, although undoubtedly it is related.
Section 24 sets out who is eligible for parole. Currently, and in the Bill as originally introduced, parole is available to life-sentence prisoners and those serving sentences of eight years or more. The Bill was amended in the Dáil so that parole will, at least initially, only be available to life-sentence prisoners, and only after serving a period of 12 years rather than seven, which is a big change. The new eligibility criteria will apply to prisoners whether they were sentenced before or after the Act comes into force, and the Minister can extend the eligibility by regulation to prisoners serving sentences greater than eight years, having regard to various criteria set out in the section.
The Minister is acutely aware of the genuine concerns which underlie the proposal in the Senator’s amendment. The Senator’s Private Members' Bill was discussed here last week on Second Stage. I did not have an opportunity to speak, given the time constraints that the House was operating under at the time. I look forward to that discussion continuing when the debate resumes.
However, I do not believe the Parole Bill is the place to deal with this specific measure, which is really a matter of sentencing policy. Having said that, the Parole Bill itself contains very significant measures in relation to the lengths of sentences served by prisoners before being eligible for parole. The concerns of victims and their families are taken very seriously and were to the forefront of minds when the Bill was being developed and worked on in the Department.They are part of the fundamental underlying rationale for the Bill, which provides for the first time that a prisoner with a life sentence will become eligible for parole after that prisoner has served 12 years of a life sentence. When a prisoner is serving multiple consecutive sentences, he or she must complete any fixed-term sentence before the 12-year sentence requirement even starts. In these, thankfully, rare and terrible circumstances, the person would not be eligible to be considered for many more than 12 years. If a person has two consecutive sentences, he or she serves the first one and then the life one kicks in. It is 12 years after that parole is considered, which is a major change. Senator Craughwell mentioned a case, and that will apply in other such cases.
The Bill does not contain anything that would prevent the board from taking into account any judicial decision or recommendation on sentencing. It does the opposite in that it specifically lists the remarks of the judge who is sentencing as one of the matters to which the board shall have regard when making its assessment. That is another move in the direction of Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell's amendment. Ultimately, the Bill is designed to deal with parole, which is a particular type of conditional early release; it is not designed to deal with sentencing except to ensure that parole does not interfere with minimum terms provided for elsewhere in law.
I remind the House about some of the measures that the Government is taking with regard to sentencing policy. Senator Bacik mentioned the Judicial Council Bill, which provides for the drawing up of sentencing guidelines by the Judiciary, which has been long called for. The type of measure that the Senator wishes to insert here is, I believe, a change to sentencing policy. The Senator introduced a Bill on a similar theme in 2017 and at that time, the then Minister, former Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, said that such a proposal would benefit from consultation with members of the Judiciary and other experts. I am not sure whether these consultations have happened. Perhaps they were undertaken in preparation for the Senator's 2019 Bill. If so, I would be interested to hear from her about the outcomes when the debate on the other Bill resumes. Has she had an opportunity to talk to judges and other experts in the court, and what have they said? I believe that this type of change deserves its own space and own debate. Nothing in the Bill before us precludes that.
While the Bill can complement and sit alongside sentencing reform, the sentencing measures themselves belong elsewhere and I will not support the amendment for that reason. Senator O'Donnell has said that her amendment applies only to life sentences and murder, which she stressed strongly, more than once. I point out that the amendment as drafted does not state this anywhere. This Bill greatly enhances the participation of victims and provides for both legal aid and legal representation for victims but the amendment does not mention anything about murder. That means it could be giving the judges that power with regard to any sentence. We have to be very careful when drafting legislation. It has to be focused and specific, and we have to be careful about unintended consequences.
I indicated on Second Stage that I would address some of the points raised. Senator McDowell mentioned sections 24(1)(b), 24(3) and 24(4)(d). These subsections deal with what happens in the event that the Minister extends the eligibility criteria, by regulation, to cover prisoners serving fixed-term sentences. Sections 24(1)(b) and 24(3) provide that the regulations may set out the length of term of sentence and the portion of that term that must have been served before the prisoner is eligible for parole. Senator McDowell is correct in that it does not provide for different types of offences to be treated differently for eligibility purposes. For example, a prisoner serving a 12-year sentence for assault would be treated similarly to a prisoner serving the same length of sentence for burglary when deciding whether they are eligible. The decision here is only whether they can apply to be considered. The nature and gravity of the offence is something that will be taken into account by the Parole Board in reaching its decision and the Bill provides for that in section 27.
The purpose of section 24(4)(d) is to require the Minister, in making regulations, to take account of the need for people serving different lengths of sentences to be treated fairly when compared to each other and to those serving life sentences. The regulations should not make it more advantageous, for example, to be serving a life sentence than a sentence of 20 years. The regulations must try to set the eligibility criteria so that those sentenced to longer terms do not become eligible before those serving shorter terms. This is the intention here. It is worded in drafting language, but its purpose is to ensure fairness insofar as it is possible.
That is all I have to say on this at this time. I made the main point, which is that another Bill is before the House that deals specifically with Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell's amendments. This is a parole Bill, not a sentencing Bill. The amendment as drafted is quite loose in some ways so we are not in a position to support it.