Writing in the Belfast Telegraph, DUP Leader Rt Hon Arlene Foster said,
Every crime is wrong and should be punished but there are certain offences that are particularly repugnant and demand tougher custodial sentences. These include attacks, sometimes deadly, against public servants such as police and prison officers or our frontline health staff.
How the courts deal with those responsible for this type of crime strikes to the very heart of what it means to live in a fair and just society. The public rightly demand that sentences handed down will be robust enough to reflect the harm caused, but the harsh and present reality in Northern Ireland is that frequently such an expectation is not met.
There is a need for a fresh look at the tools at the disposal of our courts when dealing with these cases.
The campaign being led by the courageous widow of PC Andrew Harper in favour of whole-life sentences for those convicted of killing emergency workers has emerged out of national frustration with current outcomes and is one which few in communities across our Province would object to.
Last month's welcome conviction for the 2013 murder of Detective Garda Adrian Donohoe has thrown a spotlight on the approach adopted in the Republic of Ireland, which enshrines a set tariff of 40 years for the murder of police, armed forces and politicians. This differs greatly from practice across the United Kingdom.
In England and Wales, a statutory starting point of 30 years in prison can be applied in cases involving the murder of a police officer. The Scottish tariff starting point in such cases is lower - 20 years. However final judgements can vary below or above that length depending on other factors. In Northern Ireland, it is deeply worrying that the starting tariff if a victim is performing a public service at the time of their death is only 15-16 years unless there are other aggravating factors. In fact, our Province has the lowest default starting point of any UK region for routine murder cases - 12 years.
Northern Ireland should be leading the way in the outcomes we secure for local victims. Instead it is lagging behind provision in place nationally and in jurisdictions around the world. That is not something I am willing to accept. It is morally indefensible that the family of a murdered police officer in the Irish Republic can expect to see the perpetrator imprisoned for 40 years whilst those loved ones experiencing the same pain, loss and trauma in Northern Ireland are unlikely to see similarly robust judgements without clearing endless hurdles.
The Department of Justice’s public consultation on a Sentencing Review ended in February. I would encourage the Justice Minister and her officials to signal a proactive commitment to tougher sentencing by bringing forward a set of fair but combative reforms of the guidelines.
In order to elevate the needs of victims and retain the confidence of our dedicated public servants whether they be police officers, prison officers or soldiers, it is imperative, now perhaps more than ever, that in Northern Ireland the punishment finally fits the crime.