Life imprisonment and the Parole Act 2019: Assessing the Potential Impact on Parole Decision-Making

AuthorDiarmuid Griffin
PositionLecturer in Law, NUI Galway
Pages25-44
IRISH JUDICIAL STUDIES JOURNAL
[2020] Irish Judicial Studies Journal Vol 4(1)
25
LIFE IMPRISONMENT AND THE PAROLE ACT
2019: ASSESSING THE POTENTIAL IMPACT ON
PAROLE DECISION-MAKING.
Abstract: This article examines the Parole Act 2019 and its likely impact on decision-making
surrounding the release of life sentence prisoners in Ireland. The informal and political nature of the release
process for life sentence prisoners has been the subject of considerable criticism. The Act will transition the
release decision from the Minister for Justice and Equality to a statutory Parole Board. Drawing from
national and supra-national sources as well as empirical data, the article analyses key provisions in the
legislative framework including the independence of the Parole Board, the procedural standards and the
criteria to be applied in individual cases.
Author: Dr. Diarmuid Griffin, Lecturer in Law, NUI Galway.
1
Introduction
Life imprisonment exists as the ultimate penalty in the majority of countries across the
world although legislative differences in relation to the imposition and administration of
these sentences impacts greatly on the life sentence prisoner population in each
jurisdiction.
2
Legislative frameworks and the actions of decision-makers, such as parole
authorities, have the potential to produce large variations in penal outcomes.
3
Cross-
jurisdictional differences in relation to the mandatory or discretionary nature of the life
sentence for murder and the range of offences for which a life sentence may be imposed
has resulted in significant variety in the number of life sentence prisoners in custody.
Similarly, the wide array of parole procedures and the discretion available to decision-
makers has had similar effects. In Ireland, one in every nine sentenced prisoner is now
serving a life sentence.
4
In addition to the size of the life sentence prisoner population in
custody, there are a number of long-standing concerns surrounding life imprisonment and
parole in Ireland. These include: the mandatory nature of the life sentence for murder; the
increase in time served by life sentence prisoners; the political nature of the decision-
making process; and the lack of procedural fairness afforded those subject to the process.
The Parole Act 2019 (the ‘Act’) formalises the parole process through the creation of a
statutory Parole Board that is to make decisions on release independent of the Minister for
Justice and Equality (the ‘Minister’). This legislation indicates a shift towards a more human
rights-based framework that is more consistent with other European jurisdictions.
Research on the parole process in Ireland revealed that the discretionary and political
nature of the process rendered decision-making particularly vulnerable to punitive
tendencies, as evidenced by the increase in time served by life sentence prisoners in recent
decades.
5
Will the new framework contained in the Act enhance the quality of decision-
making and produce more consistent parole outcomes? This article examines the potential
1
This work was supported by the Royal Irish Academy’s Charlemont Grants Scheme.
2
Life imprisonment is the most severe penalty in 149 of 216 countries and territories and it is a statutory penalty in 183 of
216 countries and territories: van Zyl Smit D and Appleton C, Life Imprisonment: A Global Human Rights Analysis (Harvard
University Press 2019) 87.
3
David Garland ‘Penality and the penal state’, (2013) 51(3) Criminology 475, 484.
4
Irish Prison Service. Annual report (Irish Prison Service 2016), 24.
5
Diarmuid Griffin Killing Time: Life Imprisonment and Parole in Ireland (Springer International Publishing 2018).
IRISH JUDICIAL STUDIES JOURNAL
[2020] Irish Judicial Studies Journal Vol 4(1)
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impact of the new legislation on life imprisonment and parole. At the time of writing
(August 2019) the Act had not been commenced.
Life imprisonment and parole
Ireland’s life sentence prisoner population is high when compared with other European
countries.
6
It places fifth when analysing life sentence prisoners per 100,000 of national
populations across the United States and Europe (following the United States, United
Kingdom, Greece and Turkey in this order).
7
The life sentence prisoner population in
Ireland increased by 158% between 2001 and 2017 (from 139 to 359).
8
The overall prison
population increased by 18.25% during the same period.
9
Ireland is among the few
European countries with a mandatory life sentence for murder, the impact of which has
seen Ireland’s population increase significantly.
10
The Supreme Court has upheld the
constitutionality of the mandatory life sentence, noting that murder as an offence is ‘unique
in nature’ thus validating the uniform penalty for murder.
11
In terms of the life sentence
prisoner population, 95 per cent are serving a life sentence for murder, with the remaining
serving discretionary life sentences for sexual offences, manslaughter and attempted
murder.
12
Ireland’s parole process has also contributed to the increase in the life sentence prisoner
population in custody. Life does not ordinarily mean life in prison and there must be a
process in place whereby life sentence prisoners can be released back into the community
having served a period of time in prison.
13
Data available since 2001 indicates that the
number of life sentence prisoners committed to prison has not been met with a similar
number of releases. There has been an average (mean) of 19 life sentence prisoners
committed annually over the last 16 years with an average (mean) of 4 life sentence
prisoners being released.
14
The lack of parity between committal and release has had a
cumulative effect on the life sentence prisoner population resulting in an increase in the
population, year-on-year. There has been an increase in the number of releases recently
with 14 life sentence prisoners released in 2017 and 7 in 2018.
15
The average time a life
sentence prisoner serves in prison prior to being released back into the community has
increased over the last number of decades, from 7.5 years between 1975-1984 to 19 years
from 2008-2017.
16
These figures only provide the average time served of those released.
Many life sentence prisoners serve time in prison beyond this average. In 2019, five per
cent of those in custody serving life sentences for homicide had spent 30 years or more
inside.
17
6
Council of Europe., ‘Annual penal statistics: SPACE 1-Prison populations, survey 2015’ (Council of Europe 2017), 92
93.
7
van Zyl Smit and Appleton (n 1) 87.
8
Griffin (n 4) 5.
9
See Annual Reports 2001-2017 of Irish Prison Service at Irish Prison Service, Annual report (Irish Prison Service).
10
Other countries include: England and Wales, Germany, Cyprus and the US.
11
Lynch and Whelan v Minister for Justice [2012] 1 IR 1, 10; Law Reform Commission, Report on Mandatory Sentences (LRC 108
2013) 17.
12
Griffin (n 4) 48.
13
van Zyl Smit, D., Weatherby, P. and Crieighton, S, ‘Whole Life Sentences and the Tide of European Human Rights
Jurisprudence: What Is to Be Done?’ (2014) Human Rights Law Review 1.
14
Griffin (n 4) 5.
15
Parole Board, ‘Annual Report (Parole Board 2002) 2.
16
Griffin (n 4) 5.
17
People (DPP) v Mahon [2019] IESC 24.

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