I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
Six years ago the Law Reform Commission explicitly recommended that a law be introduced to allow a court to recommend the length of time a person who received a mandatory life sentence should remain in prison. No law to bring about this change has been introduced since. The objective of my short Bill is to fulfil that recommendation. I accept that the Bill, as drafted, could lend itself to amendment on Committee Stage to ensure the wording will actually deliver on the objective I hope to achieve. More importantly, the families of victims of murder have, rightly, been looking for this to happen for years. They are represented here. The Bill seeks to makes a core amendment to the Criminal Justice Act 1990 which, among other things and alongside other legislation, provides for a mandatory life sentence for murder. It will provide certainty in specific cases on when a murderer may potentially be released. It will provide certainty for the family of the victim, the community and the offender.
The House is aware that there is a mandatory life sentence for murder, regardless of the nature or hue of the terrible event, but life does not mean life. It is not a custodial sentence for life or a significant proportion of it. Instead the offender is under licence for life. There is, in fact, a minimum seven-year custodial sentence, at the end of which the Parole Board may assess the murderer's suitability for release and at three-year intervals thereafter. In the late 1970s and 1980s a sentence for murder rarely reached double digits. The average is now 17 or 18 years, with some murderers serving longer and others a shorter sentence. According to figures supplied to the Minister for Justice and Equality in March, there are 348 murderers serving time in jail, all of whom received a mandatory life sentence. On average, they will spend just 17.5 years in jail, which is among the lowest in Europe and the world. In 2001, thanks to information received from Sentencing and Victims Equality, SAVE, there were 139 murderers in jail. Today there are 355, a 75% increase. There is no certainty about their sentences. There is also no certainty for the families of victims, the community or the offender.
Let me say something about the families of victims of murder in the Visitors Gallery. I have the privilege of being a Senator, a patron of Advocates for Victims of Homicide, AdVIC, and a conduit for all other organisations such as Save and individuals who are here representing their families and victims of murder. AdVIC has been one of my greatest teachers since I came into the House. We all find teachers here when they speak at committee meetings and tell us the way the world really works. We act or should act as a conduit for them as servants of the people. That is the Seanad's greatest role. I welcome the visitors. These families, their communities and wider society have suffered more than we will ever know. I welcome Mr. John O'Keeffe, non-executive director of AdVIC, because, as a lawyer, forensic psychologist and magistrate, he has taught me how to navigate this journey and about the law.
Everybody believes it will never happen to him or her. It is too ugly, but it has happened to hundreds of people in Ireland and none of us can imagine the horror for the families left behind which they go through every day because of their profound loss as a result of violence and unfair treatment, especially when it comes to providing certainty. The Bill is concerned with murder - purposeful, wilful, horrific murder. The short amendment to the Criminal Justice Act 1990 involves the possibility of introducing certainty by providing for a minimum minimum figure in handing down a mandatory life sentence. This happens in the Scottish system and in a broader sense in England and Wales. The core amendment to the Bill simply states the court may, at its discretion, set - that is the word I have written, but it should be changed to "recommend" - a certain determinate period of time that the person shall spend in prison. Two important points need to be made about this simple amendment, the first of which is an element of judicial discretion will be introduced when a judge imposes the mandatory life sentence for murder. He or she may, on the facts of a particular case, decide that, in his or her opinion, a minimum period should be served within the life tariff. However, the Bill has been drafted in order that he or she may also decide not to exercise such discretion and simply hand down the mandatory life sentence without stipulating a minimum tariff.
AdVIC and I, as its patron, believe judicial discretion remains critical in criminal justice scenarios. No two murderers are the same. The Bill seeks to allow the Judiciary to reflect this lack of homogeneity among murderers while, in respect of particular cases, giving all parties the certainty we have lacked to date, which has been appalling.
As we sit here today, our colleagues in the Lower House are debating the Parole Bill 2016. I am delighted that this has engendered activity. One of the features of the Bill is its proposal that the minimum period that must be served before the Parole Board may consider release should increase from seven years to 12. The Seanad should be delighted to support that proposal. If the Parole Bill is progressed, it will dovetail with and complement my short Bill. I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, to consider my Bill in the context of the Parole Bill which proposes on page 18 in respect of "eligibility" that when a sentencing judge is imposing sentence on a person, that judge may impose a specified period during which that person shall not be eligible for parole. That comes some way towards what I propose in my Bill. I am looking for an amendment also as the regime is currently too general. Once the Bill is progressed, I support also the development of judicial guidelines in this jurisdiction in respect of a range of offences up to and including murder. While we have no doubt that our own common law will organically develop such guidelines, this will subsequently become additive for the Judiciary when judges are considering whether to apply a determined minimum period to be served for murder before parole may be considered.
To the eternal credit of everyone sitting in the Public Gallery today, they, more than most, understand that justice needs to be balanced with the rights of both victim and offender. My Bill plugs a critical legal and moral gap in legislation currently whereby both scales of justice may be properly balanced. No longer will the disgrace continue that in all cases, the family of the victim of a murderer will have to beg the system not to release the person who murdered their husband, wife, brother, sister, uncle or aunt after a mere seven or even 12 years. It is abhorrent and an unspeakable burden placed by the system on the shoulders of men, women and children whose hearts have already been crushed. It cannot go on. The public as I sound it out will not allow it to do so. My Bill proposes that individual judges should have the discretion to provide individual families with certainty for a more significant period than has been the case to date. While expressing concern about some aspects of mandatory minimum sentencing, including recently, the highest courts in the land have consistently upheld the constitutionality of a mandatory life sentence for murder, which offence is confirmed in the words of a former Chief Justice to be "so abhorrent and offensive to society that it merits a mandatory life sentence".
It has been more than two decades since we were promised that the Parole Board established in 2001 would be placed on a statutory footing. As I said earlier, the Parole Bill initiated by Deputy Jim O'Callaghan is before the Dáil for debate today. However, it is unclear whether it will be enacted in the lifetime of the current Oireachtas. I seek clarity on that in respect of my amendment Bill. We need action now. It is not good enough for the families of victims to go through the harrowing ordeal of a court trial and to see a murderer put behind bars for life only to learn that he - unfortunately it is usually a "he" - or she was released after less than 20 years on foot of a decision which vests entirely with the Minister of the day. Many of us believe, including the Law Reform Commission and the Government's own penal review working group, that the recommendations of the trial judge who listened to all the evidence of a particular murder would constitute fairer decisions than may be delivered by either the Parole Board or the Minister of the day as to whether a murderer should be released from custody.
My Bill is a simple one, the aim of which is to protect the families of victims who feel justice is not served for their loved ones if a murderer may walk the streets after 18 years. I hope to work with the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, on this. I have learned as a Member of the House that people must communicate, listen, learn and come together to serve the common good and to get the law right. I ask that we have some equality in the law here. I ask also that my amendments to the Parole Bill will be taken. We have ceased in Ireland to understand the profundity of what happens when a life is taken wilfully and purposefully. We do not understand any longer what that means. I am a great believer in equality in the law. There are reams of legislation on offenders. We are running around with it and putting more committees in place in that regard. What about the offended persons sitting here, however? We are very quick in Ireland to give women life sentences for having babies outside marriage but when it comes to murderers, it is an entirely different story. We have lost the sense of what violence means. We use violence every day and communicate through violence. We are entertained by it. It is part of the social media discourse, as anyone who works in the public eye will know. We have become immune to what the taking of a life means. It means the loss of hope, future, imagination and joy, including for those who are left behind. They are murdered in their spirit, imagination and hope every day. We have become a society with no sense of shame. We are aghast at the horror of murder, but then we look away and move on.
A judge who has sat through an entire trial should be the one to recommend how long a murderer must remain in custody. That judge should determine when a murderer will be fit for parole by reference to the nature of the crime. It is not a matter where one size fits all. Who decided that the mark of mandatory sentencing or of a progressive, liberal state was telling people their lives were worth 17 years? I believe in rehabilitation and that people can atone for their sins. Before that happens, however, a price must be paid for their crimes. A price is being paid every day by those sitting in the Gallery and I demand equality for them. I will leave the matter to the Minister of State now. I am interested to hear what he has to say, in particular on the Parole Board and the issue I have pointed out. I might be able to feed into it and find some recourse for those who have been left without their loved ones forever.