Convicted child sex offenders will face life in prison under new laws currently before NSW Parliament.
NSW Attorney General Gabrielle Upton has introduced a bill to impose the harsher penalty, saying that sentences that handed-down in these cases don’t align with community expectations.
The government also wants to implement a range of other measures to tackle sex offending.
Tougher penalties just one new measure
The bill had its second reading before parliament on May 12 and is currently awaiting debate and approval. The most significant measure is that a person found guilty of sexual intercourse with a child under the age of 10 can be penalised with a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. This is an increase from the previous maximum of 25 years.
In addition, 13 other child sexual assault offences will have ‘standard non-parole periods’ (SNPPs) which will be higher than the average sentences currently being imposed for those offences.
SNPPs are a guidepost or reference point for a judge who is imposing a sentence. A ‘non parole period’ is the period of time that a person must spend in prison before being eligible to apply for release. Imposing SNPPs normally leads to longer sentences being imposed.
As well as the proposed changes to the legislation, the government intends to implement a number of other measures, including:
- Specialist judges will hear child sexual assault cases.
- Experts known as Children’s Champions will be appointed to support victims and their families throughout the hearing process.
- Children will be allowed to pre-record cross-examination evidence to limit their exposure to the courtroom environment.
Removing time limits for civil claims
There is no mention in the current proposals of removing certain time limits in which child sexual abuse survivors can make a civil claim, although the government is reportedly considering it.
Currently, there are limitation periods between three and 12 years, but previous NSW Attorney General Brad Hazzard indicated in January that this is inadequate, as it often takes survivors many years or even decades to work up the courage to take legal action.
Government moves to implement reforms after report
The reforms were introduced as a result of the October 2014 report Every Sentence Tells a Story, which was the work of a committee appointed by parliament to look at the consistency and effectiveness of current penalties for child sex offenders.
The committee made 29 recommendations for sentencing reform, including the increased penalty of life imprisonment.
The report said that “child sexual abuse devastates individuals, families, local communities and societies, and the sentencing for this level of devastation must be consistent.”
The committee also took into account the purposes of sentencing in making its recommendations, which, according to the Crimes (Sentencing Procedure) Act, are to:
- Punish the offender for the offence.
- Deter the offender and others from committing similar crimes.
- Protect the community.
- Rehabilitate the offender.
- Make the offender accountable.
- Denounce the actions of the offender.
- Recognise the harm done to the victim.
The report noted that as at December 2012 there were 1,277 inmates in NSW convicted of sexual assault offences, with 81 in custody awaiting sentencing.
There were also around 400 people convicted of sexual offences living in the community under supervision, either on parole or serving non-custodial sentences. That was a total of almost 1,800 offenders.
When comparing that to the approximately 11,000 inmates currently being held in NSW prisons, it becomes apparent that those convicted of sexual offences make up a significant percentage of inmates.
A surge in offences
Studies suggest that child sexual abuse is a growing issue in Australia. A 2014 report by the Australian Federal Police (AFP) found that online activity by both children and offenders had contributed to a surge in child sexual abuse – an increase of 54 per cent in the year prior to the report’s release.
In 2013, the AFP arrested 78 people in connection with child sex offences.
The AFP noted that of particular concern is the speed at which predators can now groom a child online and then facilitate an encounter – sometimes as little as two weeks from the first online contact to a physical meeting.
The effect of the proposed changes to the legislation
But while there’s little doubt that child sexual abuse is a social problem, and that the government’s stance is sure to win community support, the effect of the proposed changes on the prison system hasn’t been addressed, nor have issues relating to difficulties for the defence of obtaining access to materials that may prove the innocence of their clients.
Contrary to public opinion, many of those who are charged with child sex offences are indeed innocent of the charge and the Criminal Procedure Act’s prohibitions upon accessing an array of materials can lead to those who are unfairly charged being convicted of offences that they did not commit – which is something that nobody wants to happen.
With increased penalties and SNPPs, those who are found guilty of sexual offences will be imprisoned for longer, putting more strain on NSW prisons that are already struggling with overcrowding and funding issues.