Tough new laws brought in by the Andrews government to crack down on violent crime and young offenders are being rendered ineffective by loopholes that mean perpetrators are rarely punished in line with politicians’ intentions.
Victoria’s Police Association, former police commissioners and politicians have been left fuming after a 17-year-old on probation who kicked a police officer in the head on Boxing Day escaped jail time and a conviction in a ruling by a Children’s Court magistrate.
Victoria has existing laws protecting emergency workers and police from violent attacks, with offenders receiving an automatic six-month jail sentence if found guilty, but experts say extensive loopholes and plea deals mean mandatory minimum sentences are rarely imposed.
The decision to grant the youth no conviction and another period of parole prompted Police Association chief executive Wayne Gatt to call on the government to simplify charges, and to limit the number of “carve-out clauses” and the potential for plea deals. “An excessive number of carve-outs means that in effect tough laws can be rarely applied,” Mr Gatt told The Australian. “The law that relates to mandatory minimum needs to be simpler in its application, and attached to more types of offences where police and emergency workers are harmed and less susceptible to carve-outs and plea deals.”
Mr Gatt said complexity in the sentencing system and number of charges meant that police sometimes pressed charges that carried a higher maximum penalty, but had no minimum sentence. This sometimes resulted in the offender getting off lightly.
In the case of the Highpoint youth, the offender’s age and the charge – indictable assault: police – meant he was able to avoid a mandatory minimum sixmonth custodial sentence because it does not apply to that charge.
Common “loopholes” include the offender’s age, their use of drugs or alcohol and their mental health. Attorney-General Martin Pakula said he traditionally did not comment on individual sentences but understood why the Police Association was disappointed. He noted that police prosecutors had not requested a custodial sentence.
The Andrews government has worked hard to pass and implement laws that increase maximum penalties for young offenders, as well as people committing violent crimes and attacks on police. But the reform process has been dogged by cases in which offenders receive light sentences.
Opposition legal affairs spokesman John Pesutto said: “We all need to brace ourselves for more of these types of soft sentences over coming months because Daniel Andrews recently introduced youth control orders to make it even easier for very violent young offenders to avoid custodial sentences.” The orders, which can allow offenders to serve a sentence at home under supervision, sent a message of going light on criminals.
Former chief police commissioner Kel Glare said the ruling on the teenager showed the judiciary was “out of touch” with the community, while it was symptomatic of a willingness among prosecutors to water down charges.
During question time yesterday, Premier Daniel Andrews addressed a spate of riotous crimes, home invasions and attacks on police, some by youths of African appearance. “You don’t fund a gang taskforce if you refuse to acknowledge a gang problem,” Mr Andrews said. ‘You don’t fund a gang taskforce if you refuse to acknowledge a gang problem’