Did you know it is a crime to damage a library book, or even be in possession of money that has been torn or scribbled on? Or that there is a specific provision making it a crime to splash mud on bus passengers (Rule 291-3 Road Rules NSW)?
Each year, governments passes hundreds of new laws; in 2012, the Gillard government boasted passing over 8000 pages of legislation, and the trend has continued since.
Many of us commit offences in day to day life without thinking twice – from jay walking to mowing the lawn at illegal times. With thousands of offences both at Federal and State level, Australia has often been called ‘the nanny state’.
In Sydney, we have laws in place to regulate when you can buy alcohol, and even what time you can buy it in a glass container. There are laws about when you can mow your own lawn (between 7am and 8pm on weekdays, and 8am to 8pm on weekends). And even being more than 3 metres away from your vehicle if it’s unlocked comes with a maximum penalty of $2,200 if the matter is decided in court.
Too Much Government Control?
Most of us would agree that some government control is necessary, and certain actions should come with legal consequences. But it can be tricky to determine just how much governmental control is appropriate, and how much freedom should be given to the individual. Nevertheless, over-regulation is fraught with problems.
If the community believes laws are in place for something other than public safety or communal good, people are less likely to view them as legitimate and comply. Speed cameras and some minor traffic law offences are often put into the category of ‘revenue raising’, where many believe they are enacted to fill government coffers, rather than keep people safe.
Similarly, tougher penalties and more legislation are an easy way for governments to look like they are doing something to fix problems. Mandatory minimum sentencing is an example of the NSW government trying to take a tough stance against specific issues, such as alcohol-fuelled violence. Such legislation leaves little room for the individual circumstances of a case, and can lead to unfairly harsh penalties for particular crimes.
But while the enforcement of trivial or inappropriate laws could happen to anyone, the reality is that the most vulnerable members of our community are often the hardest hit.
Police in Australia operate with a huge amount of discretionary power, which can facilitate discriminatory enforcement – most frequently against racial minorities and the homeless.
Those who are homeless are most at risk of over-criminalisation due to laws relating to public drunkenness or drunk and disorderly conduct, public urination, vagrancy and begging. Under Victorian law, begging is punishable by up to 12 months imprisonment, and when, in NSW, a person is issued with a ‘move on direction’ for being in a public place while intoxicated and disorderly, they must not be in any public place for the next six hours. Obedience to this order, of course, can be impossible for those on the street with no home to go to.
Over-criminalisation can also be very expensive to the community – eating up police resources and clogging the judicial system with cases that should never have been in court in the first place. The ‘war against drugs’ has been especially costly, with many arguing that if illicit drugs were legalised, their production could be monitored and regulated, leading to lower numbers of hospital admissions, overdoses and fatalities, and less people in prison.
But with Australian governments intent on enacting more offences every year, it seems that the only ones benefiting are those who profit from the criminal justice system – including lawyers and private prison contractors.