IRISH JUDICIAL STUDIES JOURNAL
 Irish Judicial Studies Journal Vol 4(1)
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
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).
The life sentence prisoner population in
Ireland increased by 158% between 2001 and 2017 (from 139 to 359).
The overall prison
population increased by 18.25% during the same period.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
Council of Europe., ‘Annual penal statistics: SPACE 1-Prison populations, survey 2015’ (Council of Europe 2017), 92–
van Zyl Smit and Appleton (n 1) 87.
See Annual Reports 2001-2017 of Irish Prison Service at Irish Prison Service, ‘Annual report’ (Irish Prison Service).
Other countries include: England and Wales, Germany, Cyprus and the US.
Lynch and Whelan v Minister for Justice  1 IR 1, 10; Law Reform Commission, Report on Mandatory Sentences (LRC 108
– 2013) 17.
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.
Parole Board, ‘Annual Report’ (Parole Board 2002) 2.
People (DPP) v Mahon  IESC 24.