Home > Incarceration as a health strategy – imprisonment for drug offences in Ireland.

Pike, Brigid (2013) Incarceration as a health strategy – imprisonment for drug offences in Ireland. Drugnet Ireland, Issue 47, Autumn 2013, pp. 8-9.

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Reviewing Ireland’s history of using prison sentences,  particularly medium- to long-term sentences, as its ‘main tactic’ in tackling the illicit drug market, and analysing trends in the prison population over the same period, Liam Herrick (IPRT), the second presenter at the CityWide conference,  argued that the tactic had not been effective. He also showed that the policy approach is not based on any strong evidence. 

In outlining the history of prohibition in Ireland, Herrick singled out two key ‘moments’ – (1) the Misuse of Drugs Act (MDA) 1977 which introduced a 14-year maximum sentence for distribution of illegal drugs, followed by the MDA 1984, which increased the maximum possible sentence to life, and (2) the Criminal Justice Act 1999 which inserted Section 15A in the MDA 1977, creating a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years for the illegal distribution of controlled drugs over the value of €13,000. Herrick noted that in the 1980s and 1990s long sentences were consistently imposed on senior figures in the illegal drugs trade in Ireland. He went on to describe how this changed after the introduction of Section 15A in 1999, with long sentences being applied to minor figures in the drug trade on a large scale.
Looking at the size and profile of the Irish prison population from the 1960s onwards, Herrick noted that it had increased from less than 500 in 1960 to nearly 4,500 today, and that there was a particularly rapid increase in the first decade of the new century. He argued that this increase was partly due to the introduction of mandatory drug sentencing in 1999. He pointed to two statistics supporting this assertion:
-    Between 2005 and 2009, the number of charges brought by the gardaí in most categories, e.g. theft and burglary, remained static but drug supply offences doubled.
-    Over the same period, the number of short-term sentences and life sentences remained stable but the number of 3–10-year sentences increased substantially. He linked this to an increase in the number of circuit court and high court prosecutions of drug offenders receiving 3–10-year sentences. Moreover, almost uniquely in the Irish sentencing regime, people convicted for medium-term sentences under the MDA, including Section 15A, are not eligible for temporary release or community return.
Almost uniquely in the Irish sentencing regime, people convicted under the MDA, including Section 15A, are not eligible for temporary release or community return. Herrick suggested this is another reason for the bulge in the number of prisoners serving medium-term sentences.
Who are these people getting Section 15A sentences of 3–10 years? Herrick described a sample study that IPRT did, using the Irish Sentencing Information System, to see how many of these prisoners were senior drug figures. The study found that:
-    more than one third had no previous conviction,
-    more than three-quarters had not been in prison before,
-    more than one quarter had mental health problems,
-    almost half suffered from alcohol addiction, and
-    fewer than one in eight could be reasonably identified as being a senior figure in the drugs trade.
Given the profile of these offenders, Herrick pointed out that they are at a much lower risk of reoffending and should be eligible for temporary release or community return.
Herrick cited research from Australia,1 the USA2 and Ireland,3 which found that presumptive drug offence sentencing regimes were not effective in reducing levels of criminality. He noted that the UK, which also operates a presumptive sentencing regime, has recently moved to a more nuanced approach, requiring the type of drug involved and the person’s role in the drug trade to be taken into consideration.4
Herrick concluded by proposing some ‘modest ideas for reform within the criminalisation context’:
-    repeal Section 15A of the MDA 1977 completely,
-    adjust the monetary amount upwards,
-    amend the presumptive sentencing regime to refocus on the role played by the offender in the drugs trade and/or the substance involved, or
-    allow for the structured temporary release of all prisoners serving presumptive sentences (including access to community return).
Even adopting the last three ideas would, Herrick suggested, have an immediate effect on the size of the Irish prison population and the problem of overcrowding. He observed that some 400 prisoners, 10% of the total prison population, who are currently serving 3–10-year sentences for drug dealing, are not senior figures in the drug trade and could be eligible for temporary release.
1. Law Institute of Victoria (2011) Mandatory minimum sentencing. Melbourne: Law Institute of Victoria. Available at www.liv.asn.au/getattachment/22c3c2c9-45a5-45c4-96e6-f0affdfe2ff8/Mandatory-Minimum-Sentencing.aspx
2. Caulkins JP, Rydell CP, Schwabe WL and Chiesa J (1997) Mandatory minimum sentences: throwing away the key or the taxpayers’ money? MR-827-DPRC. Santa Monica, CA: Rand. Available at www.rand.org/pubs/monograph_reports/MR827.html
3.  Law Reform Commission (2013) Report: mandatory sentences. LRC 108–2013. Dublin: LRC. Available at www.drugsandalcohol.ie/20242
4.  Sentencing Council (2012) Drug offences: definitive guideline. London: The Sentencing Council for England and Wales.
Item Type
Publication Type
Irish-related, Open Access, Article
Drug Type
All substances
Intervention Type
Harm reduction, Crime prevention
Issue Title
Issue 47, Autumn 2013
October 2013
Page Range
pp. 8-9
Health Research Board
Issue 47, Autumn 2013
Accession Number
HRB (Electronic Only)

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