Types of sentences
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 include:
- Suspended sentences
- Community service orders
- Curfew and exclusion orders
- Restriction on movement orders
- Probation orders
- Binding over
- The poor box
- Forfeiture and confiscation
- Endorsement and penalty points for road traffic offences
- Orders for sex offenders
- Orders for drug traffickers
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. However, as is the case in a number of countries, not all of the life sentence in Ireland is generally served in prison custody. Prisoners who have been sentenced to life imprisonment are often granted temporary or early release. This is a feature of prison systems internationally and in Ireland.
The Minister for Justice always considers the advice and recommendations of the Parole Board. From 30 July 2021, the time which must be served by a life-sentence prisoner before being considered for parole by the Board is 12 years. Previously it was 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 length of time spent in custody by offenders serving life sentences can vary substantially. Of the prisoners serving life sentences who have been released, the average sentence served in prison is approximately 18 years. This, however, is only an average; there are prisoners serving life sentences in Ireland who have spent more than 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.
In practice maximum sentences are reserved for only the most serious cases. The maximum sentence is always open to a judge even if you have pleaded guilty to an offence.
Generally, sentencing is left to the discretion of the judge. However, there are a number of laws which take this discretion away from the judge and they must impose at least a minimum sentence.
If, for example, you are found guilty of possession of drugs with a value greater than €13,000 you will get a minimum sentence of 10 years imprisonment. This is provided for under Section 15A of Misuse of Drugs Act 1977, as amended by the Criminal Justice Act 2007.
Similarly, the Criminal Justice Act 2006 sets out a number 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 the discretion to impose a lesser sentence. In these cases the judge will take certain things into account, such as if you plead guilty or assisted the Gardaí. However, if it is your second or subsequent drugs or firearms offence, then the minimum sentence applies.
See information on ‘Minimum sentences for firearm offences’ below.
A suspended sentence means the judge imposes a prison sentence but suspends it on certain conditions. This means that you do not go to prison if you keep the conditions. A suspended sentence contains 3 elements:
- The term of imprisonment (for example, 4 years)
- The conditions on which it is suspended (for example, to keep the peace and be of good behaviour or to undergo certain treatment)
- The period for which the sentence is suspended
If you break a condition when the sentence is suspended, you will have to serve the prison term that was originally imposed.
Community service orders
Community service orders (CSOs) are provided for by the Criminal Justice (Community Service) Act 1983 as amended by the Criminal Justice (Community Service) (Amendment) (No. 2) Act 2011. A CSO means that the person must do some work which is beneficial to the community. CSOs are imposed by a judge instead of a prison sentence, where the prison sentence would have been 12 months or less. A CSO can be made if you are over 16.
A number of considerations must be met before a CSO can be made by a judge:
- You must be suitable for community service (the judge orders a probation report to decide whether you are suitable for a CSO)
- Suitable community work must be available for you to do
- You must agree to the CSO
The amount of community service you get depends on the Court, but it cannot exceed 240 hours. You must complete the community service within one year of when the CSO was made.
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) the offence may be outside the jurisdiction of the District Court which can only deal with minor offences.
When a fine is imposed, the judge normally specifies when the fine must be paid by. If the fine is not paid within the time period provided by the judge, you can be sent to prison. In the District Court, the imprisonment default periods are:
|Amount of Fine||Imprisonment in default|
|Less than €500||5 days|
|Between €500 and €1,500||10 days|
|Between €1,500 and €3,000||20 days|
|Greater than €3,000||30 days|
Under the Fines (Payment and Recovery) Act 2014 judges can give you community service instead of sending you to prison for failing to pay a fine.
Curfews and exclusion orders
Judges sometimes use curfews and/or exclusion orders as a sentencing option. These orders are often used as a condition of bail or a suspended sentence.
The court can make an order that means you have to be at home at a particular address between certain hours of the day or night. Similarly, the judge might ban you from a certain street or premises, for example, a pub or licensed premises.
Restriction on movement orders
Under the Criminal Justice Act 2006 the court can impose restriction on movement orders. These orders restrict your movements as the court considers appropriate. For example, they can forbid you from being in a certain place at a certain time, or can involve a curfew.
A restriction on movement order may be imposed if you are convicted of certain offences (mainly public order and assault offences) and you are sentenced to imprisonment for three months or more. The Act also provides that compliance with such orders may be electronically monitored.
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. It lets the courts give these offenders a type of official warning without imposing a sentence on them. A probation order requires you to be of good behaviour. It may also contain certain conditions such as:
- Payment of compensation
- Residing at a particular place
- Any other conditions considered necessary to prevent a repeat of the offence (for example, attending counselling)
It will be recorded that you have benefited from the Probation Act. If you appear before the courts again this may be taken into consideration.
Courts have a long-standing power that allows them 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 during the time stated in the order, you must pay that sum of money or face imprisonment.
Court poor box
The court poor box is another way judges can deal with less serious offences in the District Court. If you agree, you may be required to pay a sum of money into the court poor box. Usually this is as an alternative to having a conviction recorded against you. Judges only really consider this option if you are a first-time offender who has committed a minor offence, such as, littering or parking offences. This option is only available if you plead guilty or where there are special circumstances explaining your behaviour. There is more information in the document on the Court poor box.
Forfeiture and confiscation
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 means judges can 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, to drive a car. In some cases disqualification is mandatory, and in others cases disqualification is something the court chooses to impose.
The most common types of disqualifications are for convictions for driving offences. However, under Chapter 4 of the Companies Act 2014, 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.
Endorsements and penalty points
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.
Sex and drug trafficking offenders
Orders for sex offenders
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.
A judge can make the following orders if you are a convicted sex offender:
Notification order: Obliges you to notify the Gardaí of your name and address.
Certificate: States that you have been convicted of the sexual offence, your sentence and that there is a notification requirement.
Obligation to notify employers: If you are applying for employment which involves unsupervised access to or contact with a child or mentally impaired person, you are ordered to notify the employer or potential employer of your conviction for sex offences.
Sex offender order: If the Court believes it is necessary to protect the public from you, it can make such an order prohibiting you from carrying out certain activities.
Post-release supervision order: If the Court considers it necessary it can impose conditions on you for when you are released from prison. These conditions will be supervised by the Probation Service and the Gardaí.
Orders for drug trafficking offenders
The Criminal Justice Act 2006 introduced a system for convicted drug traffickers similar to those mentioned for sex offenders. The court can make an order which obliges you to notify the Gardaí of your name and address.
The order is only made if the court 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.
Minimum sentences for firearm offences
Mandatory minimum sentences apply to certain firearm offences. However, discretion is available to the judge for a first offence. The firearm offences that mandatory minimum sentencing applies to include:
- Possession of a firearm with intent to endanger life: minimum of 10 years imprisonment
- Possession of a firearm while taking a vehicle without authority: minimum of 5 years imprisonment
- Use of a firearm to assist or aid escape: minimum of 10 years imprisonment
- Possession of a firearm or ammunition in suspicious circumstances: minimum of 5 years imprisonment
- Carrying a firearm with criminal intent: minimum of 5 years imprisonment
- Shortening the barrel of a shotgun or rifle: minimum of 5 years imprisonment