Why the lenient sentences for egregious criminals?

I documented long ago how great the gap is between what the courts deliver and what the public want. Nothing seems to have changed. Note the latest episode: "A driver who veered onto the wrong side of the road and killed a motorcyclist while tuning his car radio has walked free from court". I think many will see no reason why negligence causing death should be treated any differently from murder yet the courts are completely indulgent of such episodes

I reckon the judiciary has a magisterial disdain for what you and I believe is justice. They certainly talk the talk. Judge Felicity Hampel thundered at stalker and nasty child pornographer Ross Andrew Sargent that he was predatory, and his secret toilet videos were a gross violation of the women and girls he filmed - then slashed his jail sentence to two months.

Judge Margaret Rizkalla had similarly harsh words for Matthew James Vernon, one of Victoria's worst sexual offenders. He raped an 11-year-old he was babysitting, and the poor girl had Vernon's child, an unimaginable physical and psychological trauma. "The complainant is now torn between the world of being a mother and the world of being a child,'' Rizkalla observed. "It cannot be overlooked, but the child will be a constant reminder (of Vernon's shocking and selfish crime),'' she said sternly - before sentencing him to a fraction of the decades he could have received.

Judge Roland Leckie was on to serial killer Peter Dupas's shortcomings 25 years ago. Sentencing Dupas in 1985 for a knife-wielding rape - and knowing his violently dark past - he told the convicted man, "there is a strong possibility of your reoffending'', and then let him serve relatively light sentences, concurrently, as well. Tragically, Nostradamus had nothing on the prescient Leckie. So far there's been lots of talking, but not much walking.

Last week there was more talk around killer-driver Brett Franklin, whose sentence for claiming the lives of sisters Glenda Thomson and Michelle Hurst, and seriously injuring Glenda's daughter Tara, has been reduced on appeal to just 5 years. It was a lenient sentence to begin with. The work of young, drunk, irresponsible drivers is one of the bigger issues in the community.

"We will catch you,'' warned Assistant Commissioner for Traffic Ken Lay on television and in billboards across the state over Christmas. And in Franklin's case they did get their man, if the young bloke can ever be called one. Franklin had previously lost his licence for speeding. On the night he killed Glenda and Michelle in a TAC ad come to life, he was about three times over the legal limit and friends begged him not to drive. Franklin knew better and, showing off doing burnouts and fish-tailing, his V8 lost control.

His original sentence would have seen him behind bars for only seven years, not much when you plead guilty to charges that could see you cop 20 years each on the two main counts - and you have form. Franklin also pleaded guilty to two charges of negligently causing serious injury. Now things get interesting, Judge John Smallwood complaining that the five-year maximum sentence for this too low.

That was a coincidence. Six days earlier Judge Joe Gullaci had dealt with a Brendon James Healey. Healey, driving drunk, had hit and almost killed Jordynne Wilkie, 6, along with her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. JUDGE Gullaci said it had been a miracle that Healey, who jumped bail and fled overseas, had not wiped out four generations of the same family. He also commented that the five-year maximum sentence for negligently causing serious injury was inadequate - but then gave Healey a minimum sentence of four years when the bloke pleaded guilty to four of the offences, and why don't we chuck in speeding, skipping bail and exceeding .05 for bad measure?

Attorney-General Rob Hulls was listening. As shadow attorney-general he had pledged he would review sentencing laws, aware that we wanted tough penalties for serious offenders. In 2007, Hulls wrote to the Sentencing Advisory Council seeking advice on the maximum penalty for negligently causing serious injury, later doubling it from five years to 10. The Government was "committed to ensuring that adequate maximum sentences are in place'' he was reported saying at the time.

But that's just talk. You can increase as many maximum sentences as you like, but if the judiciary won't apply them, or anything getting near to them, then it's just legislation taking up shelf space. According to figures compiled by the Sentencing Advisory Council, the number of people jailed after being convicted in the higher courts of causing injury intentionally or recklessly is extraordinarily low, about one in five. Another one in four receives a ``wholly suspended sentence'' - ie, they walk. MANY others get community-based orders. Gee, I can feel that soggy lettuce thrashing the backs of my legs right now.

So what about the more serious culpable driving - you've killed someone and it's your fault? The Sentencing Advisory Council says of those convicted of this between 2001 and 2006: "Imprisonment terms ranged from one year to 12 years and three months, while the median length of imprisonment was five years.'' That should break your heart. More than 100 drivers have killed more than 100 of us for a median penalty of five years' jail. The worst offender received about 60 per cent of the possible maximum. That's why you might not be safe on the roads. If a bunch of those drivers was serving the 20 years behind bars, the Brett Franklins and Brendon Healeys of this world might think twice. We should be outraged. To the maximum. It's time to help judges see things our way

THERE are few more acute moments in the life of a democracy than when one person sits in judgment on another. It is a burdensome responsibility in which those we appoint must rise above any petty reactions of the aggrieved and look beyond simple biblical punishments that remain popular, but are these days mostly meted out drunkenly in pubs. We no longer take an eye for an eye, but we have turned the other cheek too far.

Our judiciary acts without prejudice or bias, and is objective. But our judges and magistrates go easy on lawbreakers and, I believe, are failing us with sentences that do not reflect community attitudes and that too often are well short of what their authors expected. Too often, criminals receive quite light sentences, appeal them, and are further rewarded with even lighter sentences. The Sunday Herald Sun reported earlier this month that our Court of Appeals had slashed 116 years of jail time off killers, rapists and drug dealers in the past 16 months. Those precedents further damage our faith in the system because they become part of "current sentencing practices''.

I would like to see every judge and magistrate's performance recorded and constantly updated. We should be able to look up their sentencing records. Legal fraternity insiders know the hanging judges and those who go easy - so why can't we? Why doesn't every sentencing decision record what percentage of the possible maximum has just been delivered? It would shock many people to know how infrequently a robust sentence is handed down. Each of those percentage figures should be filed against a name. Soon, an insightful profile of the sentencing inclinations of judges would emerge and we could deal with any anomalies.

We have a right to know the judges whose decisions are most regularly challenged in the Appeals Court. We have a right to know which judges' have the most decision overturned. Let's put an end to concurrent sentences. They are not sentences at all.

LET'S have no time off for good behaviour. Add time for bad behaviour, and plenty of it.

Finally, given how out of touch so may magistrates and judges seem to be, let's learn from the successful Operation Beacon, in which all operational police, more than 8000 of them, were retrained throughout 1994 after a series of unnecessary shooting deaths sparked public uproar. Almost immediately, the shootings stopped and the reputation of Victoria Police recovered.

We need an Operation Beacon for the Victorian judiciary in which every magistrate and judge is "retrained'' - familiarised once more with the contours of common thought, the great aggregates of opinion held by the society in which they work. Judicial life is privileged, exclusive and too often isolated. We can fix that. We should.


Posted by John Ray. For a daily critique of Leftist activities, see DISSECTING LEFTISM. For a daily survey of Australian politics, see AUSTRALIAN POLITICS Also, don't forget your daily roundup of pro-environment but anti-Greenie news and commentary at GREENIE WATCH . Email me (John Ray) here

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