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.


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