: Mandatory sentencing reinvigorated

Mandatory sentencing reinvigorated

Eugene Schofield
Northern Territory

In August 2012, Northern Territorians elected a Country Liberal Party government which promised to get ‘tough on crime’. On 29 November 2012, the government introduced the Sentencing Amendment (Mandatory Minimum Sentence) Bill into the NT Parliament. The Bill proposes a system by which offences are ranked in accordance with their seriousness by reference to a set of ‘objective criteria’ such as whether the offence involved an ‘offensive weapon’, ‘harm to the victim’ and whether the offender had similar prior convictions. In effect, the legislation takes away the discretion of judges and magistrates to sentence in accordance with the facts. Not unexpectedly, this is a system that creates disproportionate sentencing outcomes.

The Bill aims to increase the sentencing tariff required by the current mandatory sentencing regime.

In most cases of aggravated assault, the Bill seeks to enforce mandatory sentences of three months actual imprisonment and in other cases, 12 months actual mandatory imprisonment.

Offences against the person (of which assault is by far the largest category) form around one third of all matters brought before courts in the Northern Territory. Recent Quarterly Crime and Justice Statistics show that 82% of current serving prisoners in the Northern Territory are indigenous. Clearly, Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory stand to lose most by the introduction of the new mandatory sentencing laws — laws which treat the symptoms rather than the causes of crime.

The legislation is drafted in similar terms to the mandatory sentencing regime in operation in the NT and Western Australia in the 1990s — a scheme widely recognised as racist, punitive, ineffective and costly. Notably, these observations have been made by a range of United Nations human rights committees as well as the outgoing Director of Public Prosecutions Mr Richard Coates.

The continuation and intensification of the mandatory sentencing regime is anticipated to attract renewed scrutiny of Northern Territory’s criminal justice system, once again making justice in the Territory, a matter of national shame.

EUGENE SCHOFIELD is a criminal lawyer with the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency.

(2013) 38(1) AltLJ 59
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