Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione has linked the increase in domestic violence to the drug “ice”, and has called upon governments to introduce mandatory minimum sentences for methylamphetamine dealers and manufacturers.
In a press conference, Mr Scipione stated that: “We have got to get even tougher. The fact is ice is like no other drug we’ve ever known.” The National Ice Taskforce will present its report in coming weeks, which may include recommendations for mandatory sentencing.
What is Mandatory Minimum Sentencing?
Mandatory minimum sentences (MMS) require courts to impose at least a certain amount of prison time upon those who are guilty of certain offences.
By doing this, they take judicial discretion away from magistrates and judges who might otherwise impose more lenient penalties; such as shorter prison sentences, or alternatives to imprisonment such as a “suspended sentences”, community service orders or good behaviour bonds.
Why Introduce Mandatory Minimums?
The rationale behind MMS is that they deter others from committing similar offences, and ensure that the punishment reflects community standards.
MMS in the form of controversial one-punch laws are already in force in an attempt to curb drunken violence.
The Law Council notes that there is very little empirical evidence that MMS in fact deter potential offenders, or reduce crime rates.
Such laws have also been criticised on the basis that they lead to unfair outcomes: for example, someone who supplies a very small amount of “ice” to support their habit, and who then undertakes rehabilitation and gets themselves on the “right track”, could receive the same prison time as a much more serious offender. Arguably, the appropriate course – and most cost-effective approach for the community – might be to impose a “suspended sentence” or bond on such a minor offender to ensure that they remain on the right course and receive the ongoing help they need, rather than being thrown into prison and a cycle of crime.
A further criticism is that MMS lead to more people pleading “not guilty” and fighting their cases, in the hopes of staying out of prison – which places greater pressure on the criminal justice system, and only really benefits the pockets of criminal defence lawyers.
Former NSW Director of Public Prosecutions Nicholas Cowdery believes there is “no justification” for mandatory sentences, stating that:
”There is plenty of evidence that [an increased penalty] … does not deter offenders, complicates and adds to the expense of criminal proceedings and requires courts to act unjustly.”
He argues that removing the ability of judges to determine the appropriate sentence based on all relevant factors creates a significant risk of injustice.
Consistent with the Law Council’s findings, data from the Northern Territory suggests that they do not deter potential offenders.
According to the NT Office of Crime Prevention, from 1997 to 2001 when MMS for property offences were in place, there was a 15% increase in such offences. The Office concluded that MMS did not deter property crime at all.
In Western Australia, minimum sentences for assaulting police officers have similarly failed to deter would-be offenders. There, the number of such assaults has remained steady, and the WA Police Union acknowledged that those “with a proclivity to offend are not being deterred.”
At the end of the day, it seems that the introduction of MMS would be little more than an expensive, vote-winning measure that quenches the public’s thirst for punishment while doing nothing to reduce crime.
Indeed, it seems that the only winners would be criminal defence lawyers and private prison companies.