08 Jan 2018 • The Australian, Australia (General News)
by John Pesutto

This youth crime spree stems from a rejection of valuable reforms No one across Australia should think for a moment that Victoria’s gang crisis happened by chance. There are clear reasons why Victoria, under the Andrews Labor government, has become a lesson to governments across the country in what not to do in the criminal justice space.

The sorry story of the past three years in Victoria is one of a government driven by an ideological obsession with dismantling tough reforms the preceding Coalition government started to implement, as well an arrogant denial that its changes would prompt anything like the culture of violence among gangs that has since unfolded.

Let the lesson be clear: when governments weaken the architecture of their criminal justice systems, as Daniel Andrews has done, the signals are pronounced. Sensitivities to even a minor softening of key laws will amplify the consequences of such changes. That’s why all governments need to be extremely careful when making changes to criminal laws that can remotely be interpreted as a weakening or softening of the law.

In Victoria the trouble started early. It began with changes to bail for young offenders when, in 2015, the Andrews government reversed a law introduced in 2013 to make it an offence for anyone to breach bail without reasonable cause. Most people would think such a law is eminently reasonable and fair, right?

Not Andrews. In one of the first acts of his government, he decriminalised – yes, legalised – the breaching of bail for everyone under 18. Incredulous that any government could make this a priority, we opposed this change as strenuously as we could but we were not able to secure enough parliamentary support to maintain the law as it then was.

The effect? Bail-breaching by young people has gone through the roof in Victoria as signals went out across the cohort of would-be offenders, as well as the judiciary, that breaches of bail were not to be treated as seriously. Many violent crimes committed by young offenders since the changes have involved people in breach of their bail.

But the weakening of Victoria’s justice system didn’t stop there. The Andrews government was just getting warmed up. A second major change involved anti-gang laws. In 2015 the Andrews government introduced a bill to weaken anti-consorting laws by imposing a range of restrictions and qualifications on police efforts to break up criminal gangs and their wider networks, often involving young and impressionable people.

Anti-consorting laws are vital to law enforcement because without them it’s exceedingly difficult to crack open the links that support syndicates and gangs. Such laws can be used not just for the most sophisticated criminal networks but also for youth gangs and their webs. That’s partly because the conditions that accompany non-association orders don’t require formal charges or criminal findings. They can be a much more flexible crime-fighting tool.

Predicting that the bill’s onerous changes would effectively neuter law enforcement efforts in tackling gangs, we warned the government about the implications of the changes involved. Again Andrews ignored the warnings and proceeded.

The result? Not once since these 2015 changes have police used these new laws. So much was revealed in the first annual report on the laws tabled in parliament only weeks ago, well out of time.

Worse, the acting chief commissioner of police has said this week that Victoria Police has received advice that the laws can’t be used and it is working with the government on new laws to crack down on gangs.

You could not make this stuff up.

The state’s changes to sentencing cuts its own sorry story. It suffices to say here that after more than two years of Victorians seeing case after case of violent young offenders being slapped on the wrist, confidence in the government’s ability to manage our justice system through a stronger legislative approach to sentencing is at new lows.

And again it gets worse. In recent weeks, Andrews succeeded in passing new laws to introduce youth control orders. This is how the government spun its changes.

The youth control order is a new sentencing option targeted at children who would otherwise be sentenced to detention because of the seriousness or ongoing nature of their offending but who do have the potential to be rehabilitated with the support and supervision of the court.

Really? In Victoria young offenders have so many options now for avoiding a custodial sentence that they have to be extremely dangerous to be ordered to serve time in a youth justice facility. So why the need to make it even easier for the state’s most violent young offenders to remain free in the community?

Space doesn’t allow me to address the disastrous effects of the Andrews government’s decision to effectively freeze police recruitment for almost three years or to ignore more than 30 riots in youth justice centres from October 2015, but I think you’d be getting the picture by now.

The lesson for governments everywhere is clear: for goodness sake, don’t follow in the Andrews Labor government’s footsteps. Remember to always put community safety first and never forget that even the slightest changes will often have pronounced effects. John Pesutto is Victoria’s opposition spokesman on legal affairs When governments weaken the architecture of their criminal justice systems, as Daniel Andrews has done, the signals are pronounced

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