States of justice: jail lighter in Victoria

12 Oct 2017 • The Australian, Australia (General News)
by John Ferguson

Penalties in Victoria lag behind NSW and Queensland for offences that carry jail terms but a legal expert has warned that comparative data should be interpreted cautiously and urged that local factors be considered.

A Judicial Commission of NSW report into sentencing and imprisonment found that of the eastern seaboard states NSW had the highest rate of full-time imprisonment across five serious offences. This covered sexual assault, child sexual assault, dangerous or culpable driving causing death, robbery and burglary.

The 2015 study is considered a definitive analysis of comparisons between the key states, with NSW showing tougher penalties on the key measures.

NSW had the highest rate of full-time imprisonment for all five categories, with sexual assault (92.6 per cent), child sexual assault (89 per cent) and robbery 80.2 per cent.

The report found that in 2014, the NSW imprisonment rate per 100,000 adult population of (181.7) was slightly lower than the Australian average (185.6). NSW, the report said, had a higher rate than Victoria (134.4), the ACT (130.4) and Tasmania (112). But the rate in NSW was lower than the Northern Territory (829.4), Western Australia (264.6), Queensland (192.9) and South Australia (187.9).

The report found that Australia had a lower imprisonment rate per 100,000 population than New Zealand, Britain and the US but with a higher rate than Canada.

The statistics come amid debate over a High Court decision that found terrorists, rapists, pedophiles and other criminals in Victoria had been handed overly lenient sentences because some of the state’s judges have been incorrectly interpreting the law.

The court ruled unanimously that a 5 year maximum prison sentence handed to a man who sexually abused his partner’s two daughters was “manifestly inadequate” and should have been corrected by the Victorian Court of Appeal.

The High Court’s commentary comes amid protracted debate in Victoria over sentencing with the state’s Coalition unveiling in April a plan for mandatory sentencing for repeat offenders of serious crimes.

Law and order has been a political football in Victoria for decades but especially in the past two years amid high crime rates.

Victorian Sentencing Advisory Council chairman Professor Arie Freiberg said cross-border comparisons were fraught. “There is no uniform or correct sentencing level for any jurisdiction,” he said. “What the High Court said here was that they believed the sentence in this particular case didn’t reflect the gravity of the offences.”

Victorian Attorney-General Martin Pakula welcomed the High Court’s decision. “This decision effectively means that current sentencing practice should be a guide rather than a constraint,” he said. “As such, it will ensure that Victorian courts have more freedom to impose sentences that reflect the gravity of offending.”

Victorian shadow attorney general John Pesutto said the High Court’s concerns showed Labor had failed to fix “our broken sentencing system”. “This decision should not have been necessary and it highlights the urgent need for reform in our justice system to ensure that sentencing practices better meet the community’s expectations,” he said.

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