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Tough on Crime Means Doing More Time

“You do the crime, you do the time.” It’s a phrase often trotted out by politicians trying to boost their tough on crime credentials. But partly due to such law and order auctions, “the time” has been getting longer. Not only are Victorian judges handing down longer sentences, they are also more likely to be ordering custodial sentences. Where previously a convicted offender might have received a fine or good behaviour bond, weekend detention or even a prison term are becoming a likely prospect.

Despite the impression created by some politicians and talkback hosts, statistics clearly show sentences in Victoria are getting longer and tougher. According to official government statistics, Higher Courts Sentencing Statistics 2002-03, which are compiled on the financial year calendar, sentences for many serious crimes have lengthened since 2001-02.

Sentences for almost all offences had increased when the total effective sentence was taken into account - this included the time received for lesser offences committed at the time of the principal offence. For example, sentences for rape had grown by 13 months, and incest by 12 months. But the largest increase documented in that report was for the offence of culpable driving, which covers situations such as manslaughter by negligent driving, where the average sentence has risen to 6.2 years, from 4.7 years - an additional 17 months.

The trend was already evident in the previous report, Higher Courts Sentencing Statistics 1997-98 - 2001-02. A wide range of offences showed sentence increases for a wide range of offences, such as murder, where the average sentence for murder increased significantly, from 195 months to 231 months, arson, where the period rose from sixteen months to 26, and cultivation, manufacture or trafficking drugs, with time inside going from 29 months to 40.

In addition, the reports show that more offenders are receiving custodial sentences, rather than good behaviour bonds, community service, or fines. In 2002-03, 4.5% more convicted defendants were given a prison sentence than in the previous twelve months, taking into account the small increase in defendants.

This increasingly punitive approach is not just happening the sentencing of major crimes in the higher courts. Magistrates’ Courts, which deal with less serious crimes, like common assault and minor drug possession, have caught the trend as well. Between 1996-97 and 2001-02, the proportion of custodial sentences handed down by Magistrates Courts rose from 6% to 8%, while the length of the sentences imposed increased by 19%, from 4.2 months to 5.0 months. Terms of one year or more made up 9% of all prison sentences in those courts in 1996-97, but that figure rose to 14% by 2001-02.

Statistics might be incontrovertible evidence of a trend towards longer sentences, but they reveal nothing of the human cost. A prison sentence is a shattering experience for many inmates. Not only is prison life tough, but the almost inevitable damage to reputation, career and family makes life after prison difficult as well. Studies show that those imprisoned are more likely to reoffend.

But the trend towards longer sentences shows no sign of ending soon. Releasing the recent statistics, Victorian Attorney-General Rob Hulls said that the reports ensured that judges handed down sentences in accord with community expectations.

“Sentences must balance the need for appropriate punishment with the need to protect the community and reduce the incidence of crime in our community,” he said. Recent Victorian Government initiatives reflect this desire to make sentencing subject to general community views, rather than just expert judges. A new Sentencing Advisory Council, comprising not just police and lawyers, but victims of crime, youth, women, people with disabilities and the mentally ill, Indigenous Victorians, has been appointed to provide community input into the sentencing process. Proposed amendments to the Sentencing Act may require judges and magistrates to take into account the impact of the crime on the victim.

With the prevailing community attitude, fostered by politicians and media, that longer and tougher sentences will minimise risks and appease victims, the trend towards longer sentences is likely to continue.

Because of these developments, defendants in Victoria could be facing a substantial custodial sentence if found guilty. Under these circumstances, engaging an expert defence lawyer to minimise the possibility of this devastating outcome becomes all the more important. Lethbridges are able to defend accused persons in criminal matters in all Victorian courts.

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