Belfast Telegraph

Focus on David Ford as calls grow for mandatory jail time

By John Mulgrew

David Ford is under increasing pressure from Stormont’s justice committee to introduce mandatory sentences for those who commit crimes against the elderly.

DUP committee member Jim Wells said he was “fed up” at the lack of action being taken by the Justice Minister, who was “not taking the situation seriously”.

“When you cross the line into a pensioner’s house, you should enter a prison cell,” he said.

“I want a mandatory sentence of three years for anyone who intimidates an older person in their home.

“People are getting suspended sentences, non-custodial.”

Mr Wells said that Mr Ford would have widespread support if he acted to bring in tougher sentences, and accused him of ignoring the problem.

He said: “He’s not taking it seriously. He has the vehicle and would have the community support to do this.”

Ulster Unionist MLA and committee member Tom Elliott said he was surprised Mr Ford had not given more thought to the issue of sentencing since his appointment as minister.

“I do think it is something he needs to put more time in to, and certainly to give more consideration to,” he added.

“There’s an impression out there that we are soft on criminals, and particularly those who commit crimes against the elderly and vulnerable.

“That needs to be clamped down on, and obviously a mandatory custodial sentence should be part of any consideration.”

Mr Elliott said many police officers were frustrated at chasing and arresting those committing crimes against the elderly only for them to receive minor sentences.

Committee chair Paul Givan said Mr Ford appeared to have more concern for the welfare of prisoners than for the victims of crime.

“We are waiting for David Ford to comply with what was included in the Programme for Government — to have more effective sentencing,” he said.

“That’s a commitment for the minister to deliver.

“At the moment it is all carrot and no stick.

“We need clear deterrents, best served through a stiff sentence and an experience in prison that would make any prisoner never want to return there.”

Sinn Fein’s Raymond McCartney said Mr Ford should be examining a range of matters relating to crimes against the elderly, not just sentencing.

“You would need to know case by case. I think what any minister should be doing is looking at the detection rate, the types of cases brought in front of the courts and whether the sentences are appropriate,” he said.

“We (Sinn Fein) are not in favour of mandatory sentences, but we have always said there should be an appropriate sentence to match the crime.”

The SDLP’s Alban Maginness said that while elderly victims of crime should be dealt with in “a more robust fashion which is right and proper”, he did not believe there should be an upheaval of sentencing.

“The courts are completely independent when it comes to sentencing.

“What politicians can do is raise concerns,” he said.

“But you cannot substitute the discretion of a judge for the views of politicians.”

However, the Department of Justice has reiterated the position taken by Mr Ford in a recent Stormont debate on the issue, in which the minister argued that the discretion afforded to the judiciary should be maintained.

A spokesman for the Department of Justice added: “The minister has taken his position.

“That’s his position on it.”

Story so far

Currently, courts can impose a life sentence for armed robbery, and aggravated burglaries and assaults can attract a jail term of up to seven years. However, there are no minimum tariffs, which means that many offenders can be released on a community sentence. In a recent debate in the Assembly on mandatory minimum prison sentences for attacks against the elderly, Justice Minister David Ford argued that the discretion of the judiciary should be maintained so that decisions reflect the individual circumstances of each case.

Widespread support for tougher sentencing laws

By Deborah McAleese

Support for mandatory sentences for crimes against the elderly has come from victims, relatives, support groups, police chiefs and politicians.

The brother of murdered Coleraine pensioner Bertie Acheson said that the current court system does not act as a deterrent.

Mervyn Acheson said: “What frustrates me is how the courts deal with these people. The courts should be severe on them.

“They shouldn’t be allowed to get away with these crimes so leniently.”

Helen Agnew (76), who was knocked unconscious by a robber close to her Portadown home in February, also said she believes the law is “too lax” when dealing with these types of crimes.

“People need to know that if they go out to do things like this then they will be in serious trouble if they are caught,” Mrs Agnew said.

During a recent meeting of the Policing Board, Chief Constable Matt Baggott said he did not see “any reason at all why the abuse of the elderly shouldn’t be subject to a significantly enhanced tariff”.

Mr Baggott added: “I think that would be very helpful in terms of the way in which the most vulnerable can be protected.”

Chief Superintendent Alan Todd, who leads a major police operation to protect older people, told the Belfast Telegraph: “As police officers we always want to lock the offender up for longer.”

The chief executive of Age Sector Platform, Eddie Lynch, also said that many older people do not believe the courts are being tough enough.

“We do not believe a strong enough message is being sent out,” he said.

A review of sentencing guidelines is currently being considered by Stormont’s justice committee.

Justice committee member Jim Wells added: “We need to send out a signal that if you do this type of thing, you are facing an immediate custodial sentence.

“Leniency should not be offered to someone who terrorises an elderly person in their home.

“There is no signal being sent out to these thugs. These crimes ruin lives.

“I know a woman who was so terrified after a burglary that she moved out of her home and into a fold

“Those behind these sorts of crimes need to know that if they’re caught, they are going down.

“The challenge now is for the justice minister and the courts to listen to what the vast majority of the public are saying.”

Our pensioners are keen to see more police on streets

By Eddie Lynch

Fear of crime is one of the biggest concerns for older people. Two out of every three of people we surveyed said fear of crime was their main concern.

It is a major issue. Even though it is unlikely you are going to become a victim, the impact of these cases raises concern.

Fear of crime has a major psychological impact. It can also increase isolation for older people as some would lock themselves away.

This, too, leads to a negative health impact and that has to be tackled.

I am pleased the Executive has pledged to tackle the fear of crime but I would like to see steps being taken to put a strong programme of action into place to tackle the problem.

Just telling people it is unlikely they will be a victim of crime is having little impact. We need much more action.

During our Pensioner Parliaments people tell us that there is a real desire for more visible policing, quicker response times and a stronger community engagement between the police and the community.

The low level of convictions is also a concern.

In relation to sentences, some older people have said to us that the people brought before the courts are not getting as harsh a sentence as they should.

We do not believe a strong enough message is being sent out.

Eddie Lynch is chief executive of Age Sector Platform

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