Sentencing at criminal trials in Ireland
If a court in Ireland has found you guilty of an offence, or you have pleaded guilty, the judge will then decide what sentence you will be given. It is the judge’s function to pass a sentence that is lawful.
Who decides the sentence?
In Ireland it is always a judge (or a panel of judges in the case of the Special Criminal Court or the Court of Appeal) who decides the sentence. In a jury trial the jury’s role is to decide whether you are guilty or not guilty. They have no role in sentencing you.
How does a judge decide on a sentence?
The judge goes through 2 steps when considering what sentence to impose on you:
- They decide what the sentence should be, based on the seriousness of the offence.
- They then reduce that sentence, taking into account any mitigating or excusing factors given on your behalf.
What your sentence will be depends on the offence you committed. Some offences can only be punished with a fine, meaning there is no option to impose imprisonment or community service.
There are minimum and maximum sentences for some offences, and the judge must impose these. For example, for some road traffic offences, the judge must 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 has to impose a sentence of life imprisonment.
Under the Probation of Offenders Act 1907, a judge in the District Court may decide not to convict you, even if it has been proven that you are guilty. The charge may be dismissed or you may be conditionally discharged. The judge has the option to do this this if they believe you are unlikely to reoffend.
You can read sentencing guidelines which have been set out by the Superior Courts for some offences.
Sentencing of children
The information given in this document relates to offences committed by adults. Children (people aged under 18) can be charged and penalised in the same way but there are other considerations which must be taken into account. Children between the ages of 10 and 17 who are sentenced to a period of detention are sent to the Oberstown Children Detention Campus. The prosecution of children is governed by the Children Act 2001.You can read more in the document Children and the criminal justice system.
Aggravating and mitigating factors
The judge must consider aggravating and mitigating factors when sentencing you, unless your offence has a mandatory sentence. Your solicitor or barrister will urge the judge to consider these factors on your behalf.
- Aggravating factors may stop the sentence from being reduced
- Mitigating factors may lead to the sentence being reduced.
Facts about how the offence was committed
Circumstances that may be mitigating factors include:
- You were provoked into committing the offence
- You were under emotional stress or pressure
- It was an accident or mistake
- Goods stolen or damaged were of low value
- Stolen property was recovered
Circumstances that may be aggravating factors include:
- You used a weapon or violence
- You invaded someone’s home
- Breach of trust
- You were on bail for another offence at the time
- Goods stolen or damaged were of high value
- Stolen property was not recovered
Impact of the offence on the victim
The judge will ask that a victim impact report is prepared in most cases of a serious nature. In some cases a judge hears direct evidence from the victim through a victim impact statement. This has a bearing on the sentence.
The offender’s reaction to committing the offence
You can expect a reduced sentence for pleading guilty. A guilty plea will save the court time and can be seen as a sign of remorse. 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 may lead to a lighter sentence you will not be given a harsher sentence because you pleaded not guilty. There is a constitutional right to be tried and you cannot be penalised for exercising this 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 taken into account when 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 before sentencing and they 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 your job)
- Character (evidence may be given of your previous good character)
- Previous convictions
Types of sentences
There is a wide range of sentences available that judges can impose on someone found guilty of an offence. You can read about different sentences in the document on types of sentences.