Sentencing at criminal trials in Ireland
Sentencing involves a judge deciding what the criminal justice system should do with a person found guilty of an offence. If a court in Ireland has found you guilty or you have pleaded guilty, the judge will decide the sentence that is to be imposed on you.
For some offences, there are minimum and maximum sentences that the judge
must impose. For example, for some road traffic offences, the judge is obliged
to disqualify offenders from driving for a minimum of two years.
There are mandatory sentences for some offences. For example, if a court finds you guilty of murder, the judge is obliged to impose a sentence of imprisonment for life.
Under the Probation of Offenders Act 1907, a judge in the District Court may decide that the facts alleged against you have been proven but may decide not to convict you. This is a form of second chance which the judge has the discretion to apply. The charge may be dismissed or you may be conditionally discharged.
Sentencing of children
The information given here relates to offences committed by adults. Children (that is, people aged under 18) can be charged and penalised in the way described here but there are other considerations which must be taken into account. The prosecution of children is governed by the Children Act 2001.
In practice, children under the age of 12 are almost never prosecuted. It is policy to avoid the prosecution of children under the age of 18 unless the conditions for the Garda Diversion Programme have not been met or the offence is a particularly serious one. The Childrens Act 2001 provides for a range of alternative penalties for children who have offended.
The Criminal Justice Act 2006 (pdf) sets the age in relation to criminal responsibility. Children under 12 may not be charged with most criminal offences but children age 10 or 11 can be charged with the offences of murder, manslaughter, rape or aggravated sexual assault. You can read more about criminal responsibility in the document Children and the criminal justice system.
Under the Irish legal system it is always a judge (a panel of judges in the case of the Special Criminal Court or the Court of Appeal) who imposes the sentence. In jury trials in the Circuit Criminal Court and the Central Criminal Court, the jury’s role is to decide whether you are guilty or not guilty. The jury has no role in sentencing you. This decision is left up to the judge after listening to your legal representative's (that is, your solicitor’s or barrister's) submission.
How does a judge decide on a sentence?
When considering what sentence to impose on you, the judge follows a two-step procedure:
- Decide what the sentence should be in light of the seriousness of the offence.
- Reduce that sentence in the light of any mitigating or excusing factors given on your behalf.
There are a number of important factors that a judge must have regard to, when sentencing you. It is a matter for your solicitor or barrister, on your behalf, to urge the judge to consider these factors and what weight or importance should be given to each.
When deciding which sentence to impose on you, the judge considers:
- Whether or not you pleaded guilty to the offence
- The facts of the offence - the circumstances in which the offence occurred
- Whether there were any aggravating factors in relation to the offence - such as particularly violent or cruel behaviour
- Your previous criminal record
- Your character
- Your age
- Your family circumstances
- Whether you are employed
- Whether you are sorry for what you have done
- Whether certain types of treatment may help or reform you
- The impact of the offence on the victim
- Any other relevant information about you (for example, if you are in bad health)
See "Further information" below on the factors considered.
Types of sentences
There are a large range of sentences available to judges that can be imposed on someone found guilty of an offence. These can be classified as follows:
- Suspended sentences
- Community service orders
- Curfew, exclusion and restriction on movement orders
- Binding over
- The Poor Box
There are a number of secondary options available to judges, depending on the offence:
- Forfeiture and confiscation
- Endorsement and penalty points for road traffic offences
There are additional options for sex and drug trafficking offenders. You can read more about sentencing in the document on types of sentences. Information on sentencing decisions is available on the Irish Sentencing Information System website.
Factors to be considered by a judge in sentencing
There are a number of important factors that a sentencing judge must have regard to when sentencing you. It is a matter for your solicitor or barrister, on your behalf, to urge the judge to consider these factors and what weight or importance should be given to each.
Facts surrounding the commission of the offence
The circumstances in which the offence occurred might include:
- Provocation (were you provoked into committing the offence)
- Duress or emotional stress (were you under emotional pressure)
- Low value of goods stolen or damaged
- Recovery of stolen property
These types of factors can have a positive effect for you in the judge’s decision on sentencing and are known as mitigating factors. However, there may also be factors which can have a negative effect (known as aggravating factors). These include:
- Use of a firearm or other weapon
- Use of violence
- Invasion of someone’s home
- Breach of trust
- On bail for another offence at the time
- High value of goods stolen or damaged
- No stolen property recovered
Impact of the offence on the victim
In most cases of a serious nature, a judge orders that a victim impact report be prepared. In some cases a judge hears direct evidence from the victim through a victim impact statement (pdf). This has a bearing on the sentence which a judge decides to impose.
Offenders reaction to committing the offence
You can expect a reduced sentence for pleading guilty. In many cases, a guilty plea will save the court time and can be seen as a sign of remorse or sorrow. In sex cases or cases involving violence, a guilty plea will spare the victim the trauma of having to relive the events in court.
While a guilty plea is a mitigating factor, you are still entitled to fight your case without it being seen as an aggravating factor. There is a constitutional right to be tried in due course of law and nobody is penalised for exercising this constitutional right.
Early admission of guilt
The court sees an early admission of guilt to the Gardaí as a mitigating factor as it saves the Gardaí time and resources.
Co-operation with the Gardaí
Co-operation with the Gardaí also helps you in the sentencing process, especially if it helped the Gardaí in catching other offenders. For example, Section 27 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977 as amended provides that this is a factor to be taken into account in deciding whether the minimum 10 year sentence for possession of drugs over a certain value is just and appropriate.
Personal circumstances of the offender
Your personal circumstances is one of the most important factors a judge considers prior to sentencing and may request a probation report. In considering your personal circumstances the judge takes the following into account:
- Drug addiction
- Disability or illness
- Family Circumstances
- Other penalties as a result of conviction (for example, losing their job)
- Character (evidence may be given of your previous good character)
- Previous convictions