The object of a prison sentence is two-fold. First it is to act as a deterrent the sentence should be of sufficient length as deter anyone from committing the crime. Secondly the length of time that a person is locked up is deemed to be the length of time taken to rehabilitate the prisoner. The function is not to punish. For what is the use of punishing it is not going to reverse the crime. All a sentence can hope to achieve is stop it from happening again whether it be by the convicted or another person. All this is persuming that the Gardai are detecting crime and catching criminals which is another subject I will return to later.
However looking at the Donna Cleary case are these being correctly applied. Just for any of my foreign readers. Basically what happened was seemingly 3 men were refused entrance to a 40th birthday party. The arrived back some time later and fired 5 shots into the window of the house killing Donna Cleary. Some people have been arrested for the murder. One of them Dwane Foster the chief suspect and a known armed robber died in custody 2 nights ago of natural cause. Foul play on the part of the Gardaí is not suspected.
Some people on Today Fm’s Last Word were calling for the death penalty to be brought back in over this crime. Firstly the Death Penalty is wrong. Taking another’s life whether by the state are by a citizen is wrong. But what of the deterrent factor. The only country in the Western World that still murders people (lets call it what it is not execution. Execute has connotations of completing a task not committing mortal sin) America also has the highest murder rate. The deterrent certainly is not working there. Also if the second function in the first paragraph is implemented then it is not going to save any other lives.
But what is happing to our country. Are we full filling the two critea for prison sentences.
The Green party wants to introduce a gun amnesty where people could hand there guns into
the local Garda station and not suffer any consequences. This has been quiet successful in places. In Ottawa Canada they ran quiet a successful one where
506 firearms were handed in. So it sounds like a good idea but one of the key quotes from the police chief of Ottawa Vince Bevan. Was that “Our intent was to increase community safety, by reducing the potential of unwanted firearms getting into the hands of those who may use them to carry out criminal acts,” See that is the difference with a gun amnesty in Canada and one in Ireland. In Canada guns are quiet common in Ireland they are all ready in the hands of those who may use them to carry out criminal acts. A gun amnesty is going to do little to curb the rise of gun crime. (But Mr O' Dea might hand his in so it might have some merit :) )
The other day Bertie said that some murders were out on the streets after 7 years. 7 years. While this may indeed solve the second critea and these people are reformed. It does not send out the right message to criminals. The deterrent needs to deter 7 years for murder is certainly no going to do that. If someone thinks they will get 7 years they might be willing to murder. In fact the need for a deterrent over rides the need to rehabilitate. If someone commits the most heinous of crimes and takes a life then they have to lose their liberty for life. As Bertie said life means life. So how do murders get back on the streets.
Enda Kenny suggested in the Dail Debate that it was the Minister who lets murders out. “The sentence for murder in this country is automatically a life sentence and life means life. The reason Malcolm McArthur is still in jail is because the Minister refused to let him out".
But there is no such thing as a mandatory life sentence in Ireland. It is up to the courts to decide the length of the sentence. In a speech at the PD conference in 2004 Michael McDowell declared. That he had
“ended the expectation that life-sentences for murder frequently meant release after 7 to 10 years”
Which is quiet true we don’t expect 7 year life sentences we are shocked by them when they are handed down. So who is to blame, is it the courts or is it the minister.
The responsibility for setting sentences is the judiciaries. So when a weak sentence is handed out it is because of the courts decisions. Tom O’ Malley argued in the Irish Times (subs regd) that the courts are not lenient that if the general public had been in the position to be the judge knowing the full extent of the cases they would give similar judgements. He also argues that in what it is not the sentences that are the deterrent but the likelihood of getting caught and having the sentence applied. While getting the judiciary to hand out tougher sentences may curb crime some what and be welcomed. Unless the law is enforced then it is a useless.
McDowell is bringing in a mandatory sentence for gun possession which is a good thing. But if the Gardai are not catching the criminals it is a useless. Crime in this country is a lot less then in our neighbours. In Ireland there is 25 crimes per 1000 in England and Wales that is 113 per 1000,Scotland 86 per 1000 and Northern Ireland 69 per 1000. So we are doing something right. Crime is caused by many things much of it is social deprivation. Yet every persons favourite model of social inclusion Sweden has a higher crime rate (based on 2001 figures) and homicide rate( based on 2004 figures Swedish (Irish here)). It also has a lower imprisonment per crime and lower police per person ratios then Ireland.(based on 2001 figures). I think the Swedish figures show that Irelands stronger law enforcement decreases crime. But crime is rising. So we have to deal with it. This has to be dealt on a number of levels. Ranging from measures to lessen the effects of social depravation but more inportantly more Gardai and tough sentencing. Basically as there is so many factors in this it is hard to proportion blame. Crime in Ireland is low. But rising prosperity gives rise to more crime. So we need to act. We need more Gardai on the beat and of tough sentencing.
We have to options either we put our hands in the air, resigner our selves to the fact that there is no more we can do or we reform our system in such a way that truly deters people from commiting murder. Which ever path we chose it will not bring back Donna but hopefully it will lead us to a place where life is not so cheap.
Update 10 March : From Limerick Blogger. A third of all gun crime in Ireland is in Limerick.
Limerick City has just under 2% of the population