A judge pleaded with the lawmakers of the State to “look carefully at comments the courts make”, and described the range of sentencing available as “totally skewed”, comparing the 12-month maximum sentence for theft with the maximum six months for drink driving.
However, he did concede to a group of visiting schoolchildren that things were not as bad as they were in the US, after Lindsay Lohan did just four hours of a two-week sentence.
Judge Seamus Hughes made the call yesterday (November 10 ) in Mullingar when he was told how Margaret McDonagh of 136 North Circular Road, Dublin 8 had been jailed at another court for 10 months for the theft of groceries. He then referred to a case he’d heard the day before in Athlone.
Thomas Dodd (57 ), who lives in a hostel on Foster Steet, Galway, and who was banned from driving in 2008 for 40 years, pleaded guilty to drink driving; however the judge voiced frustration that the maximum sentence he could impose was only six months.
“We’ve got to a state in this country when you can put a man off the roads for 40 years and people on all the radio programmes will compliment the judge, but if I just send him to prison for six months, what do you think will happen?” he asked.
“He’ll probably pass you out on the way home,” commented defence solicitor, Mr Paul Connellan, referring to the present prison policy of offering temporary release (TR ) to non-violent offenders to relieve the pressures on the overcrowded system.
When Judge Hughes heard that Dodd had 24 previous convictions for drink driving, and 27 for having no insurance, he noted, with a tone of incredulity: “Twenty four? I’ll definitely be on Pat Kenny for this one”.
Describing Dodd as an “absolute recidivist”, he went on to criticise the temporary release system, offered at a governor’s discretion.
“Governors of prisons in Ireland regard road traffic offences as not being meritorious enough to serve a prison sentence. That’s the reality of it,” he declared.
“It’s a waste of my time sending him to prison until the Legislature... and I’m aware I can’t criticise the Legislature...but I have no effective penalty...If I had the option I would send him to prison for two years,” he sighed, before fining Dodd €1,000 and post-dating the 40-year ban to begin again this week.
The following day in Mullingar this problem again arose, and Judge Hughes maintained his opposition to the situation in which he found his professional hands tied.
“The range of punishments is totally skewed,” he said, and pointed out that he hadn’t extended Mr Dodd’s disqualification or jailed him, because “we just don’t have the facilities”.
While a person can be jailed for 12 months "for stealing a bar of chocolate", or for stealing groceries out of necessity, he said legislation prevented him from jailing Dodd, for more than six months for drink driving.
Yesterday in Mullingar he drew the attention of a group of schoolchildren visiting the court to the case of Lindsay Lohan who was released from prison after serving just four hours of a two-week sentence handed down in a US court, saying “As bad as things are here, they are worse in California”.