Which State is the Toughest on Crime?

A new Report by the Judicial Commission of NSW shows that sentences imposed in NSW are generally harsher than sentences for similar crimes in Victoria and Queensland.

The Report looked at the period 2006 to 2013 and focussed on five areas in which the three states had similar maximum penalties:

  • Sexual assault.
  • Child sexual assault.
  • Dangerous or culpable driving causing death.
  • Robbery
  • Breaking and entering or burglary.

ABC News reported that 89 percent of NSW cases for sexual assault of a child under the age of 10 led to imprisonment, compared with 76 percent in Victoria and 70 per cent in Queensland.

In all areas except for dangerous or culpable driving, the sentences imposed were harsher in NSW than in the other two States. In this category, the average sentence in NSW was 33 months, compared with 66 months in Queensland.

The Report states that in the other areas:

  • The average NSW sentence for child sexual assault was 84 months compared with 48 months in Victoria and 72 months in Queensland.
  • The average NSW sentence for robbery was 44 months compared with 36 months in both Victoria and Queensland.
  • The average NSW sentence for armed robbery was 49 months compared with 36 months in Victoria.
  • The average NSW sentence for breaking and entering or burglary was 36 months compared with 24 months in both Victoria and Queensland.

The Government’s view

Not surprisingly, the NSW Government has welcomed the report, with Attorney-General Gabrielle Upton making a statement that “the community rightly expects people who do the crime, will do the time. Sentences must align with the community’s expectations of justice if the community is to have confidence in the justice system.”

Why is NSW imposing harsher sentences?

Upton’s statement suggests that community attitude drives policy making in areas such as sentencing, and that winning votes is what counts when it comes to decision making in the realm of law and order.

But this is probably not the only consideration.

The Report does not go into why NSW penalties are harsher – for instance, it does not examine the characteristics of the offender such as whether they have previous convictions and the nature of those convictions, or whether they pleaded guilty or not guilty, or whether they accessed rehabilitation programs in the lead-up to sentencing, or the severity of the crimes themselves. Analysis of these types of factors might give some insight into the reasons behind the disparity.

The Report does, however, says that a similar report published in 2007 “concluded that calls in the media for more severe sentences in NSW, at least comparatively speaking, were “pushing an open door”. This study confirms that observation.”

The inference is that the NSW Parliament has been led by the media in determining sentencing requirements. And this may well be the case.

The Law Council of Australia

In 2014, the Law Council of Australia posted an article about the mandatory sentencing debate in Australia. Mandatory sentencing provides for minimum sentences to be imposed in certain situations.

The Law Council article noted that sentencing reforms have been driven by community concerns that penalties are not tough enough.

The problem with mandatory sentencing, though, is that judges and magistrates are unableto consider the individual circumstances of each case – such as the characteristics of the offender and severity of the offence itself – when imposing sentences. This can result in unfairly harsh sentences in many cases.

The article cites examples, including:

A 16-year-old who received a mandatory sentence of 28 days for stealing a bottle of water.
A 15-year-old who received a 20 day mandatory sentence for stealing pencils and stationery. He died in custody.
The article goes on to note that there is no evidence of a reduction in crime as a result of mandatory sentencing schemes.

And while the NSW government is basking in the findings of the Judicial Commission’s Report, tougher sentences have done little to address the root causes of criminal activity.

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About Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Specialist Criminal Lawyer and Principal at Sydney Criminal Lawyers, Sydney's leading firm of criminal and traffic defence lawyers.
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