Mandatory sentencing is dumb justice

Justice Minister Michael McDowell isn’t pleased with the judiciary. He thinks they are deliberately not enforcing mandatory sentences for drug trafficking. He’s probably right. And they’re right too.

One of the great achievements of the enlightenment was the ending of arbitrary and partisan justice. This is represented in the republican demand for the separation of the executive and the judiciary.

It’s fundamental and this government is doing its best to undermine it. They want justice to be a popularity contest. No politician is ever going to lose his seat by calling for more gardai, more prison spaces and an end to the ‘revolving door’ etc, etc, etc.

The law at present says that any person caught with more than €10,000 should face a mandatory sentence of ten years in jail save for exceptional circumstances. The judges have exercised these ‘exceptional circumstance’ more than the justice minister would like. Some reports indicate that only around twenty per cent of the €10,000 club has ended up in jail.

The reason for this is simple. The judges hear the actual evidence in the trials. They hear the circumstances surrounding the case and then they make their minds up. That’s actually how a justice system is supposed to work because its based on the idea that every individual accused is entitled to a fair hearing.

If you don’t have this intelligent interpretation of the facts what you end up with is a conveyor belt of injustice every bit as bad as the negative effects of the drugs trade. What you end up with is the warehousing of the vulnerable, the gullible, the young, the poor, the addicted and the desperate for years and years and years on end. 

Mandatory sentences don’t end the drug trade. They simply fill up the jails and make the drugs being trafficked even more valuable.

The United States has been fighting this ‘war on drugs’ with this strategy. They have brought in savage, even bizarre sentences, 500 years and the like. When these sentences don’t work, and they never do, they decide that the reason they don’t work is because the sentences are not tough enough. So they bring in more sentences and they warehouse even more people.

There are now over two million people in the US in jail. Yes, that’s two million in jail, in the land of the free.

That’s 491 people in jail for every 100,000 people in the US. If the same number of people were to be imprisoned in the Republic of Ireland we would have 21,000 people in jail instead of our present 3,200. That’s the direction we’re heading.

And you know what? The USA is the world’s biggest market for illegal drugs. Still.

Meanwhile, while we are preparing to jail people at a cost €84,000 a year while we have some 250 beds to cater for a hard drug population of around 13,000 in this city alone.

The new law will narrow the scope for those dastardly ‘exceptional’ circumstances and our judges will have their hands tied. The new figure is €500,000 worth of drugs. The flaw in this plan is that the scumbags who run our drugs trade are never, ever in possession of any drugs at all. It won’t annoy them.

Still, mandatory sentences increase the chance of Michael McDowell and his chums of getting re-elected. And that, of course, is the whole point.