there is a wide range of sentences available to a judge who is sentencing someone found guilty of a criminal offence in Ireland. These sentences may be custodial or non-custodial and include:
Depending on the offence, secondary non-custodial options may be appropriate, such as, disqualification, confiscation and compensation. There are additional options for sex and drug trafficking offenders.
There are three specific types of imprisonment options available to a judge:
• Mandatory sentences
• Maximum sentences
• Minimum sentences.
A mandatory sentence is one which must be imposed regardless of any other circumstances. In Ireland, murder carries a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment. A life sentence lasts for life. As is the case in a number of countries, however, not all of the life sentence in Ireland is generally served in prison custody. The granting of temporary or early release of life sentenced prisoners is a feature of prison systems internationally and in Ireland.
The Minister for Justice and Equality, in deciding on the release from prison of a life sentenced prisoner, always considers the advice and recommendations of the Parole Board of Ireland. At present, the Board initially reviews prisoners who have been sentenced to life imprisonment after they have served 7 years.
Prisoners serving very long sentences (including life sentences), are normally reviewed on a number of occasions over a number of years before any substantial concessions would be recommended by the Board. The final decision as to whether a life sentenced prisoner is released, rests solely with the Minister. The length of time spent in custody by offenders serving life sentences can vary substantially. Of those prisoners serving life sentences who have been released, the average sentence served in prison is approximately 12 years. This, however, is only an average; there are prisoners serving life sentences in Ireland who have spent in excess of thirty years in custody.
The law lays down maximum sentences for all crimes. For example, if you are found guilty of violent disorder under Section 15 of the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 1994, the maximum sentence you can receive is 10 years imprisonment.
The maximum sentence is used as a starting point by a judge when deciding on what sentence to impose.
Generally, sentencing is left to the discretion of the judge. There are however, are a number of laws which take this discretion away from the judge and obliges the judge to impose at least a minimum sentence.
If, for example, you are found guilty of possession of drugs with a value greater than €13,000 under Section 15A of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977 , Section 27 of the Act as amended by Section 33 of the Criminal Justice Act 2007 (pdf) provides for a minimum sentence of 10 years imprisonment. Similarly, the Criminal Justice Act 2006 (pdf) has introduced a number of new offences in relation to firearms which carry a minimum sentence if you are convicted on indictment. If it is your first offence, the judge has discretion to impose a lesser sentence, having regard to such things as a guilty plea or assistance provided to the Gardaí. If, however, it your second or subsequent drugs/firearms offence, then the minimum sentence applies.
See "Further information" below on mandatory minimum sentences for firearm offences.
A suspended sentence involves the judge imposing a prison sentence but suspending it on certain conditions. This means that you do not go to prison if you do not break the conditions. A suspended sentence contains 3 elements:
If you break a condition during the period for which the sentence is suspended, you will have to serve the term of imprisonment originally imposed.
Community service orders (CSOs) are provided for by the Criminal Justice (Community Service) Act 1983. For your punishment, you are required to do some work which is beneficial to the community. CSOs are imposed by a judge instead of a prison sentence.
A number of considerations must be met before a CSO can be made by a judge:
The total number of hours of community service cannot exceed 240 hours and you must complete the community service within one year of the making of the order.
Many offences provide for a fine to be imposed. Often, offences will provide for a fine and/or another punishment (usually a prison sentence), while other offences attract only a fine. If a fine exceeds a certain amount (class A fine) it may take the offence outside the jurisdiction of the District Court which can only deal with minor offences.
When a fine is imposed, the judges normally specifies a period of time within which you must pay the fine. If the fine is not paid within the time provided by the judge, you can be sent to prison for a time in default of the payment. In the District Court, the imprisonment default periods are as follows:
|Amount of Fine||Imprisonment in default|
|Less than €64||
|Between €64 and €318||15 days|
|Between €318 and €635||45 days|
|Greater than €635||90 days|
Judges sometimes use curfews and/or exclusion orders as a sentencing option. Often, such an order takes the form of a condition of bail or of a suspended sentence.
The court may make an order requiring you to be at home at a particular address between certain hours of the day or night. Similarly, the judge might ban you from entering a certain street or premises, for example, a pub or licensed premises.
Under the Criminal Justice Act 2006 the court can impose restriction on movement orders. This may be imposed if you are convicted of certain offences (mainly public order and assault offences) and you are sentenced to imprisonment of three months or more. The Act also provides that compliance with such orders may be electronically monitored. However, this has not yet been implemented. There is more information in the document on restriction on movement orders.
The Probation of Offenders Act 1907 provides the courts with a way of dealing with first time offenders and offenders who are unlikely to be in trouble again, by giving them a type of official warning without imposing a sentence on them. If a probation order is made, as well as requiring you to be of good behaviour, it may also contain certain conditions such as:
In addition to the court’s power to make a probation order there is a long standing power that allows the court to bind you over to keep the peace and be of good behaviour. This involves you entering into a recognisance (or monetary bond) for a period of time. If you get into trouble within the time stated in the order, you must pay that sum of money or face imprisonment.
The Court Poor Box is another way judges have of dealing with less serious offences in the District Court. You may be required, if you agree, to pay a sum of money into the Court Poor Box. Usually this is as an alternative to having a conviction recorded against you. The option is only likely to be considered by judges for first time offenders who have committed minor offences, such as, littering or parking offences. This option is only available where you plead guilty or where there are special circumstances explaining your behaviour. There is more information in the document on the Court Poor Box.
Various laws provide judges with the power to order property, which is connected with the offence you have been convicted of, to be forfeited or confiscated. For example, under Section 10 of the Censorship of Publications Act 1929 prohibited publications may be confiscated.
The Criminal Justice Act 1993 gives judges the power, upon your conviction, to order you to pay compensation. This may be in addition to or instead of any other punishment. The amount of compensation which a court can order is limited to the amount it could award in damages in a civil case.
The court must take your means and your financial commitments into account when making a compensation order. Compensation orders may be enforced. For example, the court can order an attachment of earnings.
Disqualification orders are not a punishment, but rather a finding that a person is unfit to perform the function from which they are disqualified, for example, drive a car.
The most common types of disqualifications are for convictions for driving offences. However, under Part 7 of the Companies Act 1990, a person, convicted on indictment of a criminal offence related to a company, can be disqualified from holding certain positions related to running a company, such as a director.
The Road Traffic Acts provide for a system of endorsements. An endorsement is an entry on a person’s licence record of either a court order of disqualification or of penalty points. There is more information in the document on penalty points.
As well as the general sentencing options available for all offences, a judge can make a number of specific orders when dealing with sexual offences. This is provided for by the Sex Offenders Act 2001.
The following are the orders which a judge may make if you are a convicted sex offender:
The Criminal Justice Act 2006 introduced a system for convicted drug traffickers similar to those mentioned for sex offenders. It allows the court to make an order which obliges you to notify the Gardaí of your name and address.
The order is only made by the court if it considers that it is in the interest of the common good and that it is appropriate, given the circumstances of your case. More information is available in the document on the Drug Offenders Register.
Mandatory minimum sentences apply to certain firearm offences. The following are the offences to which this sentencing applies. Discretion is available to the judge for a first offence:
If you have a question relating to this topic you can contact the Citizens Information Phone Service on 0761 07 4000 (Monday to Friday, 9am to 8pm) or you can visit your local Citizens Information Centre.