Ireland an ‘anomaly in Europe’ as life sentences grow longer under unreformed parole process

Dr Diarmuid Griffin
Dr Diarmuid Griffin

Life prisoners in Ireland are serving longer periods of time behind bars than in previous decades due to Ireland’s unreformed parole process, new research has found.

According to new figures, lifers spent an average of seven-and-a-half years in prison in the decade leading up to 1984, doubling to 14 years between 1995-2004 and 22 years between 2012-16.

Speaking to Irish Legal News yesterday, Dr Diarmuid Griffin, law lecturer at NUI Galway, said that Ireland is “an anomaly in the European context” because decisions on parole are made by the Justice Minister on the advice of the Parole Board of Ireland.

He said: “There would have been a political component to parole in many countries in the early part of the 20th century to the mid-20th century, but that began to be reformed in latter decades … and a lot of countries have now removed the political component.

“Most countries have a system whereby either a legal tribunal or a parole authority that makes the final decision is governing the whole entire process.”

Dr Griffin (pictured) said it is now “best practice in Europe to remove politics from the decision-making process”.

He said the Parole Bill 2016, which was submitted to the Dáil by Fianna Fáil and has since secured the backing of the Government, represented “an important step towards reform”.

However, he also called on politicians to reconsider the imposition of mandatory life sentences on those convicted of murder.

Dr Griffin said: “The mandatory life sentence is problematic in that it doesn’t allow the sentencing judge or the trial judge to distinguish between the various different types of murders, and … there is a wide variety of different behaviours, aggravating and mitigating factors that might be applicable to one murder over another.

“The lack of discretion at that stage definitely has resulted in an increase in the life sentence population, which is quite high compared to other European countries now.”

Dr Griffin’s new book, Killing Time: Life Imprisonment and Parole in Ireland, looks at the rationale behind the increase of time served by life prisoners. It includes interviews with former Justice Ministers and parole decision-makers to examine the factors influencing decision-making.