Yesterday 45-year-old Philip Sullivan learned that the life sentence he had received for the rape and violent sexual assault of two young boys had been over turned. The Court of Criminal Appeal once again decided to go on the light side when it came to the sentence a convicted sex offender should serve.
Sullivan will now serve 12 1/2 years of a 15 year sentence. He’ll probably be out sooner than that. As a prisoner under Irish law he’s entitled to an automatic quarter off his sentence and today he Minister for Justice announced that he would wouldn’t be touching this automatic entitlement any time soon.
In fairness this isn’t all that much sooner than he’d be back on the streets if the life sentence had been left intact. The average length of jail time for Irish life sentences is about twelve years. That includes those who received mandatory life sentences for murder.
The subject of minimum sentences has been buzzing around for years and there are arguments on both sides. Certainly sitting in court on a regular basis and watching the sentences handed down I’ve often heard Judge Paul Carney voice his displeasure of the Court of Criminal Appeal’s tendency to knock down the more punitive sentences to an arguably lenient average.
Take the Sullivan case. I covered that sentence last year and the story was immediately the fact that a life sentence had been handed down and the speculation about whether it would stick. This was a particularly nasty case. Sullivan was in a position of trust as a caretaker to an apartment building. He was a repeat offender. The victims were only nine and eleven years old and his crimes were of a particularly nasty type.
The guy is a predatory paedophile who had served time on previous occasions and yet went on to abuse these two boys over a period of over two years. 12 and a half years just doesn’t seem enough.
With the Finn Colclough sentence there was some surprise when the figure turned out to be ten years. Quite a few of those in the press bench had been speculating a lower figure. The sentence for manslaughter can be anything from a suspended sentence to life. It seems to average out at around seven or eight years. Wayne O’Donoghue served three for the accidental killing of 11-year-old Robert Holohan.
Rape sentences are usually in and around eight years but have notably been a lot less. Adam Keane hit the headlines in 2007 after his three year suspended sentence for rape was activated and subsequently extended by the Court of Criminal Appeal to seven years after it emerged he had made a triumphalist gesture at his victim as they caught the same train home.
That’s another trial I followed and coincidentally yet another sentence handed down by Mr Justice Paul Carney. Looking back on the cases I’ve cited here they’re all his sentences. He’s often quoted as making side swipes at the CCA as he hands down sentence and it’s easy to see why. He’s the most vocal of the judges who dislike having their sentences more often than not reduced.
I’ve often wondered if some of the more lenient sentences he imposes are there to make a point on the assumption that they’ll end up the standard length on appeal. The Adam Keane sentence would fall into that category.
But back to the subject of minimum time served. I noticed another news story this evening while I was checking the rss feeds on my phone. A judge ruled today that a man who raped and murdered a women should serve at least twenty two years in jail. As soon as I saw the headline I knew it wasn’t an Irish story. No matter how bad the crime, here a judge won’t be able to say how much of a life sentence the accused should serve. Sure enough it was a court in Belfast.
Mandatory minimum sentences do exist under Irish law but only in very specific circumstances. Murder carries a mandatory life sentence but as I’ve already said that can end up meaning as little as twelve years. Some drug sentences have mandatory minimums but that’s about it.
Covering rape after rape after rape and seeing traumatised women watch their attacker walk off to serve a sentence that doesn’t usually even hit double digits, it’s hard not to be in favour of minimum sentences. Rape is considered serious enough to be dealt with by the Central Criminal Court, the highest criminal court in the country. But the sentences don’t always reflect that. Of course every case is different but the average sentences for sexual offences in this country tend to be pathetically low.
I’m generally madly here but it’s something that you see again and again. A man who stole the childhood of his now adult victim gets a pitiful couple of years compared with the lifetime of damage he’s inflicted. Those who have held a woman against her will, terrorised her, traumatised her get a sentence in single figures once all the mitigating factors are taken into account. I’ve watched trials that would fit these descriptions and each of them has helped to make up my mind on this one.
The subject of sentencing is always going to be a minefield, once again by virtue of the fact that each case must be judged by it’s own merits but as long as stories keep appearing that this one has been released early or that one had their sentence reduced on appeal it’s going to feel as if an attitude exists that sex crimes are somehow less serious.
I wouldn’t be in favour of mandatory life for any rape conviction but there should be some that deserve the same automatic penalty as murder. In the meantime these stories will keep cropping up and the perception that you can commit a crime in Ireland and be out in a flash will prevail.