Police morale hit by soft sentencing of criminals
Senior police officers have attacked Northern Ireland's criminal justice system, saying sentences are too soft and prosecutions take far longer than in other areas.
Two PSNI chiefs were being interviewed by a committee of MPs at Westminster, where they revealed that the number of organised crime gangs in the province had risen by 100 in the past decade.
There are currently between 160 and 180 organised crime gangs operating in Northern Ireland, the officers said.
There are still links with paramilitary groups, they said, although this is a “healthy minority.”
MPs were also told how the Real IRA charges a ‘tax’, or protection fee, to other criminal groups that carry out offences including fuel laundering and prostitution.
Mr McComb said: “It is criminals taking significant sums of money off other criminals.”
They also outlined the “internationalisation” of organised crime, with gangs from China and Eastern Europe increasingly targeting both sides of the border.
Assistant Chief Constable Drew Harris told the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee criminals convicted of fuel laundering in Northern Ireland would be more likely to be given a suspended sentence than in the rest of the UK.
He said: “We do not think that it reflects the harm that is done, the money that is made and what happens to that money. It creates a fertile ground for other criminal activity to flourish.”
Mr Harris said there were some “very stark differences” in sentences handed out for public order offences.
He pointed to a 2002 study comparing riots in Bradford with those in Belfast.
After this report, sentences in Northern Ireland were “doubled”, he said, but are “still far removed from the maximum sentences available here (England).”
He added: “It does sap police morale. Year in, year out we find ourselves in a situation of serious public disorder.
“It's somehow seen as ‘well, that's ok, we can manage that'... there is almost an acceptance.”
He added: “We do not get enough community support, or through the criminal justice system. It is very discouraging, but at the same time, officers will always step forward to do their best.”
Detective Superintendent Roy McComb highlighted Northern Ireland's bureaucratic legal process as being another problem.
He pointed to a human trafficking prosecution that had dragged on for three years and would not be completed before next year.