A new bill that would see people who give character references for convicted sex offenders questioned under oath could make them “think twice” about coming forward.
The bill would mean anyone offering a character reference during sentencing for a sexual or violent crime would have to do so under oath and could be cross-examined by the prosecution.
Currently, anyone convicted of any crime in Ireland is entitled to bring forward mitigation during sentencing – generally made up of character references and the efforts they have made to rehabilitate themselves since the crime was committed.
The references generally do not attempt to minimise or condone the crime and tend to relate to the person’s conduct either before the crime was committed or in other areas of their lives.
On Newstalk Breakfast this morning, Senator Doherty said the mitigation process can be retraumatising for victims of violent or sexual crimes.
“Currently the practice is, where a perpetrator has been found guilty of a sexual or violent crime, they are allowed, under the court system, bring forward referees or information as to their good character in mitigation of the sentence the judge is going to hand down for the offence,” she said.
“We know from talking to women that this has re-traumatising effect on them because they are powerless and usually intimidated in a court setting by troops of people coming in back-slapping and telling you how wonderful a lad or great footballer he was.
“I knew his parents you know; he was in the scouts – a load of information toward a person’s character but nothing in relation to the offence or the crime they have committed.”
Senator Doherty said legal sources have told her that “judges don’t really take it into account anyway”.
“I wanted to do away with character references altogether but apparently that is unconstitutional as we are allowed to bring forward evidence in mitigation,” she said.
“So, if we are, then what am absolutely sure about is number one, we shouldn’t re-traumatise our victims and number two, the evidence should be given under oath and therefore questionable.”
Sexual and violent crimes
She said she does not see the relevance of a person’s previous good character when it comes to a sexually violent crime.
“If you’re a rapist, you’re a rapist,” she said.
“Obviously, the court system allows mitigation but I’m absolutely sure that we are not going to re-traumatise victims.
“I am going to re-empower them during that part of the process in trial and allow them to question the veracity of the information that is being given in mitigation for the rapist or the violent person.”
The Fine Gael senator said she hopes the law will make people “think twice” about offering references for people convicted of violent or sexual crimes.
“I just hope this will allow women to be re-empowered at that part of the trial – particularly when a person has been found guilty,” she said.
“No woman should have to be re-traumatised again having gone through the criminal justice system.”
She said the bill is just one element of the ongoing push to make the court system less traumatising for victims of sexual crimes.
“The amount of women who have contacted me to tell me they were sexually assaulted - raped or otherwise - and didn’t ever report it to the Guards because they all have this impression that you are re-traumatised,” she said.
“You are not actually considered a defendant. A woman, a victim of a violent crime, in a lot of cases is actually put on trial themselves so we are deterred against going through the system because we don’t feel we get a fair chance.”
If you are affected by any of the issues raised in this article, you can contact the Rape Crisis Network National 24 Helpline on 1800 77 8888.