I am presenting this Bill on behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality. It deals with sentencing for sexual offences. I look forward to hearing the contributions of Senators on it.
I am particularly pleased to have the opportunity to introduce this legislation to the House because it deals, in part, with legislative proposals I brought forward as a Private Member to introduce mandatory sentences for repeat sex offenders. The proposals were initiated after listening to the experiences of victims of sexual violence who had told me of the trauma they had suffered. I thank them again for sharing their experiences with me.
The Bill is part of a wider range of measures in the area of sexual offences that have been introduced recently. Members will recall the enactment of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) BIll 2017 which updated existing laws to combat child pornography and introduced new measures to combat the sexual grooming of children. The Act also contains important provisions surrounding criminal evidence in sexual offence trials.
In addition to the Bill being introduced, further legislation in this area is also being prepared. The Sex Offenders (Amendment) Bill which is being drafted will enhance the monitoring of convicted sex offenders. The Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) (Amendment) Bill 2018 represents a further branch of the programme of reform. I believe it is a vital and necessary enhancement of current legislation.
It is important that sentencing provisions for sexual offences be appropriate to the offences in question. The role of legislators in sentencing is to set out the maximum sentence that can be imposed. It is then a matter for the court to decide the appropriate sentence in a particular case, taking into account all circumstances. There are a few instances in which mandatory or minimum sentences are specified in legislation. There is a mandatory sentence for murder of life imprisonment. Minimum sentences are also in place for a number of serious offences such as crimes involving drugs and firearms. The use of minimum sentences is intended to reflect the impact of such crimes on society.
The Criminal Justice Act 2007 provides for presumptive minimum sentences for repeat offenders. This applies to certain serious offences but not to sexual offences, which arguably is an anomaly. The Bill sets out presumptive minimum sentences for repeat sex offenders. The provisions will apply to those who have been convicted of a serious sexual offence and received a sentence of at least five years. If the offenders go on to commit a further offence within ten years, a presumptive minimum sentence will apply. It should be acknowledged that many convicted sex offenders are managed effectively on their release from prison through the Probation Service and An Garda Síochána and do not go on to commit further offences. The measures in place for the management of sex offenders which are to be enhanced in the Sex Offenders (Amendment) Bill play an important role in preventing reoffending. However, a small number go on to offend again. In putting in place these provisions the Government is recognising the impact of sexual offences both on individual victims and society as a whole and ensuring appropriate measures will be available to the Judiciary in sentencing to ensure these crimes can be dealt with effectively and appropriately.
The Bill also proposes to equalise the penalties for incest by both male and female offenders. Currently, the sentence for incest by a male is life imprisonment, while for a female, it is a maximum of seven years. It is proposed to equalise the penalties by lowering the sentence for incest by a male to ten years and increasing the sentence for a female to the same level.
Turning to the Bill, I draw the attention of the House to the main proposals contained within. Sections 2 and 3 equalise the maximum penalty for incest by a male and a female at ten years' imprisonment by way of an amendment to the Punishment of Incest Act 1908. Under the Act, incest by a male carries a sentence of up to life imprisonment, whereas incest by a female carries a maximum sentence of seven years' imprisonment. The Department of Justice and Equality has been advised by the Office of the Attorney General that the difference in penalty between a man and a woman could give rise to a constitutional challenge. The proposed legislation equalises the maximum penalties for the separate offences of incest by a male and a female at ten years' imprisonment. The new provision brings the provisions up to date and into line with section 1 of the 1908 Act. At present, a female aged over 17 years who is convicted of an incest offence is liable to imprisonment for up to seven years.
I note that Part 5 of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017 contains a number of other provisions regarding the penalty for incest. These provisions have not yet been commenced, pending the equalisation of the penalties for incest in this legislation. The provisions in sections 4 and 5 of the Bill have been developed based on the proposals brought forward by me in the Criminal Justice (Commission of Sexual Offences) (Amendment) Bill.
Section 4 provides for the insertion of a new section 58 into the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017. The new section provides that, where an offender is convicted of a sexual offence listed in Schedule 1 to the 2017 Act and sentenced to imprisonment for a period of at least five years and is convicted of a further offence listed in Schedule 1 within ten years, the court shall, when imposing sentence for that offence, specify the minimum term of imprisonment to be served by the person. According to the provisions, the minimum period of imprisonment shall be three quarters of the maximum term of imprisonment prescribed by law in respect of such an offence and, where the maximum term is life imprisonment, the minimum shall be specified as a term of not less than ten years. However, the court will have discretion in the application of the sentence if it is satisfied that this would be disproportionate in all the circumstances of the case.
Section 5 inserts a Schedule into the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017. The Schedule lists the offences to which the provisions of the new section 58 of the 2017 Act will apply. All of the scheduled offences are offences of a serious nature where the maximum penalty on conviction on indictment is five years' imprisonment or above.
I think the House will agree that any measure which seeks to strengthen legislation governing sexual offences is of the utmost importance. I hope such measures will be given due consideration. I look forward to a constructive and fruitful debate.