25 September 2022

Judges should heed DPP's message on sentencing

| Ian Bushnell
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Director of Public Prosecutions Shane Drumgold has been keeping judges accountable. Photo: Claire Fenwicke.

The ACT courts have long had a reputation, unwarranted or otherwise, of being soft on crime.

At one point, it seemed nigh on impossible to get a murder conviction in this town, although cleared convicted cop killer David Eastman would beg to differ.

Now some of the sentences being handed down for some of the Territory’s most heinous crimes are being openly questioned, as are the judges delivering them.

If it were just the police or their union raising a clamour, the issue might fade from view, but when the Director of Public Prosecutions makes a point of it in the ACT Bar Association Bulletin, it is time to sit up and take notice.

READ MORE Government defends high rate of sentencing appeals as ‘proof of justice system at work’

Police everywhere argue that they get the rough rub of the green regarding convictions and sentences. Arresting villains is their business, so that is understandable.

Prosecutors also have a vested interest in putting people away to show they are doing their jobs properly.

But DPP Shane Drumgold, who has lifted the profile and performance of prosecutions since he took the role in 2019, is not one for self-promotion or banging the law and order drum for the sake of it.

Justice has been at the heart of his approach to trial outcomes from the start of his term, setting up an appeals team to look at sentencing trends and see how they sit with community standards and expectations.

The DPP has been active in the ACT Court of Criminal Appeal in 2021-22 and has won nearly 70 per cent of its appeals.

Mr Drumgold says the number of Crown appeals is significantly higher than in previous periods, and most sought to address sentences for murder and child sexual offending that the DPP considered fell clearly short of community standards.

He has not criticised his court colleagues but has not pulled any punches either (respectfully, of course).

“It is important that Crown appeals remain rare and exceptional … It is, however, equally important that this office ensures that the jurisdiction’s sentencing practices reflect legitimate community standards and expectations, and our structure ensures we discharge this important duty,” he wrote in the Bulletin.

READ MORE Man who repeatedly raped young daughter given more jail time on appeal

Attorney-General Shane Rattenbury has fended off calls for a review of sentencing and bail outcomes, arguing that the successful appeals show the system is working and that there is accountability.

In a sense, he is right. That is why there is an avenue for appeals. And Mr Rattenbury will never be one to play to the mob in such a highly emotive area or pit the executive against the judiciary.

But he can express, as Mr Drumgold has, a view about sentences and community standards.

The good news is that in rejecting a review, he also said that did not mean there were not “particular areas of work that we can do”.

Stiff jail terms may not always be the answer but the cases cited are at the extreme end of offending and provoke revulsion and understandable community anger when a sentence does not go anywhere near fitting the severity of the offence and the impacts on victims and their families.

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Favourable bail decisions where the risk of flight or reoffending is high also rankle, especially when recidivists with records of hundreds of charges are involved.

It is hoped the ACT’s magistrates and judges are listening and getting the message. This is not about destroying any capacity for redemption or rehabilitation – although in some cases, that window closed long ago – but appropriate justice and protecting the community.

What is not wanted is mandatory sentencing and the loss of discretion that is so important in the administration of justice.

Mr Drumgold should be commended for exercising all of his judicial options. May he continue to do so.

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The ACT justice system Tom McLuckie is not failing. Police statistics reveal this. This is a furphy promulgated by unions, police and right -wing media. The Canberra Liberals are also pushing for a harsher, tougher approach to tackling crime. They are a party of conservatives with a no holds barred approach to law and order. This approach may sit well with some people but does not fit well with community standards or a fair and equitable justice system. I have faith in our legal system and its processes. I also have faith in those who provide input – doctors, social workers, counsellors and yes, those who have experienced inprisonment. We do have recividism but that occurs in all societies and is not unique to the ACT. You use Texas and the NT in trying to make a point. Texas and the NT have some of the most draconian and cruelest law and order laws in the world. These laws target race and those less fortunate in society. You only have to look at a high profile case playing out in the NT courts at this very moment. Texas also proudly uses capital punishment in tackling crime. Thankfully capital punishment has been outlawed in this country!

Tom McLuckie8:47 pm 28 Sep 22

The crime stats going down because of targetted policing activity (those right wingers who you blame), nothing to do with the Court. I reference Texas as a private joke for Christine as per her profile. I mention NT as per motor vehicle thefts – never once commented on their Judicial systems. Not once. And who the @#$& has every mentioned the death penalty? I am requesting tougher offences for motor vehicle recividist criminals and you are talking about hanging people…..not sure how you’ve made that connection mate. Raving mad.

Tom McLuckie10:13 pm 28 Sep 22

Wrong. Unless you think 3 months in prison for a drug driver killing someone meets community expectations? Giving ICO with no prison sentences to not just one but two convicted drug traffickers with $10000 s of dollars in proceeds of crime. And the list goes on. have a look at our Supreme Court Judgements for the last year, read the statement of facts and then understand the actual time served in prison or any form of punishment is non-existent. I mention Texas as that is where Christine Stevens profile states she from. I quote NT as we have nearly the same rate as motor vehicle thefts. And when did anyone mention capital punishment? You run a petition to toughen traffic offences and you have us apparently supporting capital punishment. Same old greeny BS claiming everyone who doesn’t agree with them is extreme.

Mike of Canberra4:55 pm 29 Sep 22

Jack, to casually say the ACT has recidivism is akin to saying it occasionally gets a little cool when the temperature hits minus 10. The fact is that our so-called jail has the highest recidivism rate in the country. Why? Because its inmates aren’t required to actually do anything, unlike virtually every other penal institution around Australia. And as for NT having “some of the most draconian and cruelest law and order laws (!) in the world”, well I sure wasn’t aware they had the death penalty as certain American states do, including Texas.. Now that would be cruel and draconian.

wodenresident12:45 pm 28 Sep 22

Have there been any local studies done that demonstrate that the current approach is working?

We see articles almost daily about recitivist offenders, but what about convicted offenders that have got their life together and are productive members of society. Do they exist? Where are the studies on these people.

I want the best outcome for the community. Let’s study the current approach and see if it is working.

It seems that sentencing is driven by the number of beds available at AMC. Start sending people to Goulburn. Or bring in some NSW magistrates who know how to do the job.

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