Trevor Laffan: Are courts guilty of showing criminals too much leniency?

There are many examples of habitual criminals receiving sentences that, in my eyes, seem incompatible with their record of illegal activity, so says Trevor Laffan
Trevor Laffan: Are courts guilty of showing criminals too much leniency?

STRIKING A BALANCE: Are the scales of justice tipped too far on the side of the defendant?

IT’S not unusual to see reports from the courts of criminals receiving lenient sentences, despite having a long history of criminality. Habitual offenders with lengthy lists of previous convictions getting a smack on the wrist. It’s the kind of thing that drives most people nuts.

It can also be soul-destroying for the investigating gardaí, who regularly invest a lot of time and effort into getting an accused before the court in the first place. Criminal investigations are complicated and time-consuming.

Gathering and evaluating evidence from the scene of a crime is a specialised, scientific process. Taking statements from injured parties and witnesses, questioning suspects, making arrests and organising charges all takes time. It also involves a considerable volume of paper.

The reward for the efforts of the investigating officers is a successful prosecution and a spell behind bars for the culprits. But there are many examples of habitual criminals receiving sentences that, in my eyes, seem incompatible with their record of illegal activity.

Defence lawyers often make a standard case for leniency. Their client has a long history of criminality but it’s not his fault. He’s had a tough life and just fell in with the wrong people. Family was dysfunctional and gave him no support, so he never had a chance.

He developed issues with alcohol and drugs, but the good news is he’s making a valiant effort to turn his life around. He’s moved away from the area and has disassociated himself from the bad influences in his life. He’s attending rehab for substance abuse and is in a committed relationship.

He is determined to become a better person. He apologises for the hurt caused and wishes to express his profound regret at his behaviour.

The defendant may even shed a tear, the cynic might say for effect, and that’s it.

The tried and tested formula for getting a clip around the ear. Tell a sob story, express remorse, give an undertaking to become a better person and Bob’s your uncle. He might be back on the street before the ink is dry on his prison tattoo.

So how many chances should a persistent offender be entitled to, before he can reasonably expect to have the book thrown at him? Quite a few apparently.

Liam Heylin had a story in The Echo about a couple in their 90s who returned home to find an intruder had smashed his way in through a bedroom window.

The house was not ransacked but it had been disturbed by the intruder and a bloodstained towel left at the scene. The burglar cut himself while smashing the window and getting into the house.

The culprit was caught and was jailed at Cork District Court for 10 months in respect of this burglary. He also received two six-month sentences for other burglaries, but they were made consecutive to the 10 months, leaving him with a total jail term of 16 months.

He had 128 previous convictions, including 38 counts for carrying out burglaries and five for theft.

His solicitor, seeking leniency, told the judge that his client had pleaded guilty to the burglaries at the earliest opportunity and co-operated with the garda investigation.

That sounded good, but in reality, he didn’t have much choice. As well as the DNA match, there was video evidence from a neighbour’s CCTV so there was no point in trying to deny it.

The defendant previously turned up at the home of a woman in her 70s. The householder returned home to find someone had broken in through a kitchen window and stolen €1,000 worth of jewellery. The woman lived alone in the house.

The judge said it was awful that a person of this age had to deal with something like that at this stage in her life.

It was awful, but the sentences the man received previously didn’t act as much of a deterrent, as evidenced by his long list of convictions.

Liam Heylin also reported on another case where a woman caught handling stolen property received a jail term of eight months. It wasn’t her first time before a judge either. She had 193 previous convictions — two for handling stolen property and 43 for theft and one was for robbery.

In 2019, she received an 18-month sentence for multiple thefts and was due to complete that sentence in December, 2020. However, on March 2, 2020, nine months before that end of that sentence, she was out again.

Not only was she free, but she was back in front of the judge again where she received another six-month sentence. But incredibly, just six weeks later she was free again on temporary release and in front of a judge once more.

This time, the judge imposed an eight-month sentence on the charge of handling stolen property.

So, she has been returned to prison to complete her original 18-month sentence, which will be completed with remission by December, 2020, and the new eight months she got won’t increase her time in custody.

Her solicitor said she was doing quite well in prison, which surprised me given that she seems to spend so little time there.

In another case, a seven-month jail term was imposed on a Dubliner who went to a house party in Cork and then broke into a car belonging to a pharmacist. He was caught red-handed, sitting in it. A window of the car had been smashed and the culprit pleaded guilty to taking the car without permission, interfering with it and causing criminal damage.

He had 161 previous convictions. In his defence, the court was told that he left the country to get away from people.

He was addicted to drink and tablets but got clean until he went to a party and took drink again. He can’t remember what happened he was so intoxicated, but apologised for his behaviour.

Sound familiar?

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