Mandatory sentences have been an increasing feature of Irish criminal legislation in the 21st century. Ireland has relatively few mandatory sentences. Murder has long since carried a mandatory life sentence irrespective of the circumstances.
Certain drugs and firearms offences are subject to mandatory prison sentences of substantial duration. A “Section 15A” drug offender must be sentenced to at least 10 years. This applies to an adult convicted for possession for the purpose of sale or supply offence value where the value is more than €13,000 with two or more such previous convictions.
An anomaly of mandatory sentences is that the gravity of offences in mandatory sentence cases may be less than those in the case of more serious, and grave crimes, which do not carry mandatory sentences.
Principle Upheld in Ireland
Arguments have been made that mandatory sentences undermine the separation of powers. This is because the judge’s freedom to exercise discretion in relation to sentencing is pre-empted. However, this has not been accepted internationally nor in Ireland.
The Irish courts have upheld the right of the legislature to fix the punishment for crimes including mandatory sentences. The Irish courts have also rejected a challenge to mandatory fines for customs offence.
The Supreme Court rejected a challenge to the mandatory life sentence for murder. The mandatory life sentence was upheld partly in view of the uniquely serious nature of the offence. The court was influenced by the special and long-standing unique factors that apply to murder. The offence was so abhorrent that legislature could choose to make it a subject of a mandatory sentence in all cases.
Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights guarantees a right to a fair trial by an independent and impartial tribunal. The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights provides that the severity of penalties must not be disproportional to the criminal offences. In contrast, the Convention does not make specific rights to sentencing and punishment, as such.
The European Convention on Human Rights prohibits inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment. Case law under the Convention that sentences must not be so disproportionately severe as to amount to inhuman and degrading treatment. Case law under the Convention suggests that a life sentence is not necessarily incompatible with Article 3.
It has been indicated under the European Convention, that in some cases, a mandatory sentence that cannot be reduced, may raise an issue under the Convention. It has been indicated that a sentence might be reducible for this purpose, even if it is reducible only at the discretion of the executive or even just the President. The relevant decisions were by way of majority and other judges felt that a possibility at the discretion of one executive officer may not suffice.
The issue has arisen in the context of extradition to the United States, where some sentences carried the possibility of life without parole and where such long sentences are commonly imposed.
There is authority under the Convention that extradition to a State which violates the European Convention is itself a breach of the Convention. However, the UK courts have allowed extradition based on the possibility of remission even on an executive discretionary basis. Extradition may proceed based on an undertaking by the State seeking extradition.
Serious Drugs Offences
“Section 15A”, drug offences relate to unlawful possession of controlled drugs for sale or supply. They carry a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. The Criminal Justice Act 1999 created a new offence of possession for sale or supply of controlled drugs with a value of €13,000 (£10,000) or more.
Every adult person who is convicted of this offence is liable to a maximum life sentence but must be ordered to serve at least 10 years imprisonment; unless there was exceptional factors that make this sentence unjust in the circumstances.
The legislation refers to a non-exhaustive list of factors including assisting the police, nature of the plea, and public policy dealing with drug crime and drug trafficking. The court must have regard, whether the offender has previously been convicted of a drug trafficking offence, and whether the public interest in preventing drug trafficking would be served by the imposition of a lower sentence.
Since Criminal Justice Act 2006, an adult, convicted of a second or subsequent offence of either a section 15A or 15B offence must be sentenced to a 10-year minimum. On a first offence, the maximum sentence need not be imposed where there are exceptional and specific circumstances.
There is no provision that it is a presumption only in the case of later offences. If the court is satisfied that the drug addiction was a substantial factor leading to the commission of the offence, it may list the sentence for review, after the expiration of a date, at least a certain way through the sentence.
Firearm and Weapons Offences
Similar provisions apply under the 2006 Act for serious firearms and weapons offences. The presumed maximum applies to the first offence and the mandatory minimum is five years.
It is provided that the sentence for these drug and firearm offences are ineligible for remission under the ministerial power in Criminal Justice Act 1951 or for early release under the Criminal Justice Act 1960 for the duration of the minimum sentence.
Temporary releases may be granted for grave reasons of a humanitarian reason only and they may only be such as is justified by the circumstances.