Widespread calls for axing of mandatory jail terms
The Northern Territory Police Association has joined social justice advocates, members of the legal fraternity, a former corrections boss and a former director of public prosecutions in calling for the government to scrap mandatory sentencing laws.
Reforms to the existing system could be implemented as early as the middle of next year, with a paper being prepared by the Territory Department of Attorney-General and Justice for consideration by cabinet in early 2018.
The Gunner Labor government went to last year’s election promising to “broadly support” the Making Justice Work framework, a collection of policy demands assembled and promoted jointly by social welfare, indigenous rights and religious organisations. One of those demands was abolishing mandatory sentencing.
Others included striking an Aboriginal justice agreement, managing access to alcohol better, reducing youth incarceration and funding more therapeutic and rehabilitation services.
Police association president Paul McCue said a range of factors such as individual need, domestic circumstances and “just because people want to” could contribute to offending.
“Having mandatory sentencing removes the ability for courts to take into consideration the variety of reasons why those crimes might have been committed,” Mr McCue said.
Police officers in the Territory deal with a range of violent and other crimes that occur at higher rates than elsewhere in Australia.
Mandatory sentencing reforms have historically been blocked by the conservative Country Liberal Party, acting on public anger about high rates of delinquency.
During his time in the Legislative Assembly from 1994-2005, former Country Liberal Party chief minister Denis Burke advocated for tougher sentences, even travelling to New York to learn about that city’s controversial Rockefeller drug laws.
Mr Burke declined to comment yesterday, and others who have previously strongly backed locking up criminals and throwing away the key have withheld their views recently.
Lia Finocchiaro, the daughterin-law of Mr Burke, is one of the CLP’s two MPs.
Despite representing a suburban electorate in the Darwin satellite city of Palmerston, she is understood to have more modest views on mandatory sentencing than Mr Burke.
CLP Opposition Leader Gary Higgins has indicated his openness to some reform.
Attorney-General and Minister for Justice, Natasha Fyles has described the Territory’s justice system as fraught with “outdated legislation that isn’t serving the Territory’s criminal justice needs”.
“The Territory Labor government will deliver a whole-of-government justice framework to reduce the rates of incarceration and recidivism,” Ms Fyles said yesterday.
“This will require reconsidering all aspects of the justice system — laws, sentencing, and diversion programs.
“Mandatory sentencing ob- viously falls within the system.”
Labor's review could affect the life sentence given to indigenous man Zak Grieve, who under the existing laws was told he would have to serve at least 20 years in jail without parole for a murder the judge found he didn’t physically commit.
Mr Burke and, more recently, the former attorney-general John Elferink have both argued that there is no such thing as “trivial murder”.
In 2000, Mr Burke said that although murderers could seek parole, his cabinet was “unmoved” by their requests.
The judge who sentenced Grieve attacked mandatory sentencing laws for “inevitably bringing about injustice” and recommended Grieve’s release after 12 years via a mercy plea.
That could potentially see Grieve released in 2023.