Recently, the New South Wales government proposed changes to the forum sentencing program in response to a study which found that it had no significant impact in reducing criminal behaviour.
The changes have already taken effect in some courts and will take effect in all courts from 25 July 2014.
What is Forum Sentencing?
In its simplest form, the forum sentencing program gets victims, offenders and other affected parties to talk through the crime and devise an ‘intervention plan’.
It is intended to be part of an offender’s sentence and is used as an alternative to jail. Forum sentencing is not available for more serious offences (eg. rape, murder, stalking, firearms, drug supply and certain domestic violence offences).
Some serious prior convictions may also stop an offender from using the forum sentencing program.
The process relating to entering forum sentencing involves a number of steps:
- the magistrate will refer an offender to the program administrator;
- the administrator assesses whether the offender is suitable for the program and advises the magistrate;
- the magistrate will confirm whether the offender should enter the program.
After this step, the forum will take place.
The court generally allows an adjournment of 8 weeks for this to take place.
The victim, the offender and any other affected parties (eg. support people for the victim and/or police) will discuss the offence and the impact it has had.
All of these parties come together to create an intervention plan to repair the harm that the offence has caused.
It is important for the offender not to be confrontational and accept the views of the other parties (even if the offender disagrees).
Some common actions which form part of the intervention plan include:
- an apology and/or compensation (eg. money/goods) to the victim;
- work for the victim or community;
- participation in an education (eg. driver) or rehabilitation (eg. drug/alcohol) program; and
- anything else which may help the offender address their behaviour and reintegrate into the community.
Once the plan is drafted, it is sent to the magistrate for approval.
If the plan is approved, the offender will have to complete the plan before, or as part of the sentence.
Once the plan is completed, the court will be notified. If the case was adjourned for the plan to be completed, any sentence the magistrate hands down will take into account on the completion of the plan.
If the plan was part of the sentence and all other parts of the sentence have been completed, the matter is finalised.
It is important to note that if the offender doesn’t complete the plan, they may be required to reappear in court.
However, while completion of forum sentencing can be used to reduce the sentence, non-completion of forum sentencing cannot be used to increase the sentence. T
herefore it is usually a good idea to complete forum sentencing if it is available.
What are the Changes?
Under the proposed changes, there are four main features that will be altered.
Firstly – and most importantly – access to the program will be broader.
Previously, forum sentencing was only allowed if there was a possibility of the offender going to jail.
After the changes take effect, forum sentencing can be ordered if there is a likelihood that a conviction will be recorded and the offender will be required to enter into a Good Behaviour Bond, perform community service work or go to jail.
Secondly, victims will have more power and their participation will be emphasised.
Significantly, forum sentencing will only go ahead if the victim(s) want(s) to participate.
What this seems to indicate is that the victim’s views will hold more weight.
It has always been the case with forum sentencing that the offender should not disagree with the victim and accept the impact of the offence.
This position will only be strengthened by the changes.
Thirdly, the administration of the program will be more centralised.
This means that the ‘Operations Team’ at Parramatta will handle all referrals and will monitor the completion of intervention plans.
Finally, locally based ‘Forum Facilitators’ will assess offenders for entry into the program and help set up intervention plans.
The final two changes are essentially administrative changes.
More significant is the expansion of access to the program as well as the greater emphasis on victims.
Forum sentencing has historically been used as an alternative to jail, often in conjunction with another order.
Now that access has been widened, there is no reason why it cannot be used to reduce other sentences in the same way.