Do you ever wonder how a Judge reaches a decision on the appropriate sentence to impose when dealing with an accused person who has pleaded guilty or has been found guilty of an offence or a number of offences?

The basic principle which a Judge must consider in deciding the appropriate sentence to impose in every such case is that the sentence must be in proportion to the gravity of the offence and the personal circumstances of the Offender.  Once the gravity of the offence is established, then a Judge will consider the various mitigating factors and aggravating factors which play a part in determining the appropriate sentence.  There are restrictions on some Courts in terms of the length of a sentence which can be imposed, so a Judge will have to ensure that any sentence imposed is within their authority to so impose.  For example, in the District Court the total sentence which can be imposed by a Judge when dealing with a combination of offences is a total of 2 years.

In determining the proportionality of a sentence to the offence(s) perpetrated by an Accused, a Judge will consider the following matters:

  • Did the accused person plead guilty or not guilty to the offence;
  • Did they co-operate with the Gardaí;
  • What are the facts of the offence and the circumstances in which the offence occurred;
  • Are there any aggravating factors in relation to the offence – such as violent behaviour;
  • Has the accused person expressed regret for what they have done;
  • Is the Accused a person of good character or have they previous convictions;

What are the personal circumstances of the accused to include: their age, family circumstances, employment status, their health, have they addiction problems for which treatment may assist or reform them;

What impact has the offence had on the victim;

The above are the main factors which are considered by Judge in deciding the appropriate sentence to impose.  A Judge has a discretion on whether to impose a concurrent or consecutive sentence when deciding on the appropriate sentence of a person who is convicted of more than one offence.  If a person receives a concurrent prison sentence, then that person is allowed to serve all of the sentences simultaneously.  For example, if a person is convicted of 2 offences and a one year concurrent sentence is imposed for each offence, then the total period which the person will serve in prison will be one year.  On the other hand, if a consecutive sentence is imposed for each offence, then the person will serve the sentences one after the other and will therefore spend 2 years in prison.  Where an offence is committed by an accused person while on bail then a custodial sentence, when imposed, must be consecutive to the previous sentence.

A Judge also has the discretion as to whether to suspend a part or all of the sentence imposed on the accused person.  The power of the Court to suspend all or part of the sentence was put on a statutory footing, for the first time in the 2006 Criminal Justice Act.  The Court, when deciding on imposing a suspended sentence, may attach conditions requiring the person to be of good behaviour and to keep the peace.  If an accused person breaches these conditions, then the suspended sentence maybe activated.

In Ireland, Judges have a wide discretion on deciding the appropriate sentence to impose on an accused person.  They must however, when making their decision consider the matters, as set out above.  They must also act within their jurisdiction i.e.; comply with any sentencing limits relevant to their Court.  They must also follow the Law where certain sentencing guidelines are set out in respect of same offences e.g.; murder carries a mandatory life sentence.

-Helena O’Carroll