The standard approach with regard to sentencing provisions in criminal legislation is for the Oireachtas to specify the criminal offence concerned and the maximum penalty that may be imposed on persons found guilty. It is then a matter for the sentencing Judge to consider the penalty.
As the Deputy will appreciate, judges are independent in the matter of sentencing, as in other matters concerning the exercise of judicial functions, subject only to the Constitution and the law. As a general rule, the court is required to impose a sentence which is proportionate not only to the crime but to the individual offender. In doing so, the Court identifies where on the sentencing range the particular case should lie and then applies any mitigating factors which may be present.
An important safeguard rests in the power of the Director of Public Prosecutions to apply to the Court of Appeal to review a sentence she regards as unduly lenient.
Under the Judicial Council, a Sentencing Guidelines Committee was established on 30 June last year. The Committee is responsible for compiling guidelines designed to increase consistency in relation to criminal sentences and this work is being progressed.
As the Deputy will be aware, the Programme for Government 2020 contains a broad range of policies and proposals that represent a coherent approach to enhancing and sustaining a more just and safe society with a specific commitment to review policy options for prison and penal reform.
As part of this work, a cross-sectoral group which includes the Head of Criminal Justice Policy in my Department, the Director-General of the Irish Prison Service and the Director of the Probation Service, was established last year.
I intend to publish a Penal Policy Action Plan shortly which will set out the actions we will take according to timelines that will be published. Among the issues which will be looked at in the plan are the appropriate use of non-custodial sanctions and the role they can play in addressing criminality, reducing reoffending and providing protection to the public while holding the individual accountable.
This work will also build on a number of initiatives that have been introduced over the past decade to reduce reoffending, including Community Return and Community Support Schemes and the Joint Agency Response to Crime (JARC).
The "Working to Change Social Enterprise and Employment Strategy 2021-2023" sets out my Department’s direction for supporting employment options for people with convictions by simultaneously working to remove systemic barriers so that people can make sustainable changes. It builds upon a solid foundation of employment supports already in place across the criminal justice sector and is a collaboration between the Prison and Probation Service and my Department.
We also know that substance abuse is an indicator of an increased likelihood of recidivism.
To look at how we address this, last April, together with the Minister for Health and Ministers of State Frank Feighan and Mary Butler, I established a High Level Taskforce to consider the mental health and addiction challenges of persons interacting with the criminal justice system.
In recognition of the need for a cross-Government approach to meeting the complex needs of such people, the Taskforce comprises representatives from a wide cross section of health agencies, the Justice sector and other relevant stakeholders. I am very pleased with the progress made by the Taskforce to date - they submitted an interim report to Minister Donnelly and I in November 2021 and we now expect to receive the final report and high level implementation plan for their recommendations in the coming weeks.