In New South Wales, both the ALP government and the Coalition
opposition have been in love with Laura Norder for a long time. As another
state election approaches, their relationship with Laura has grown into an
obsessive and dangerous menage-à-trois.
Our government has recently introduced "standard minimum
sentencing", setting out standard non-parole periods for a range of
offences. For example, if you assault and injure a police officer you can
expect to spend three years inside; for breaking, entering and stealing in
company, you'll get five. These are generally much longer than the average
non-parole periods currently imposed by the courts.
It's not quite mandatory minimum sentencing - judges may increase or
reduce these terms after taking into account a list of mitigating or
aggravating factors, and they may even impose non-custodial sentences in
special circumstances. Nevertheless, it's a worrying assault on judicial
independence, and an ill-conceived attempt to force courts to impose
Of course, what the opposition offers is even worse. They see the list
of mitigating factors as "13 excuses" for criminals to get away
with their crimes - and propose compulsory minimum sentences for offences
involving violence or drug trafficking. Their one concession is that it
won't apply to juveniles.
Then there is the assault on bail. Driven by complaints from
disgruntled cops who are sick of arresting and charging offenders, only to
see them released on bail to do it all again, the police minister, Michael
Costa, has decided that "repeat offenders" should lose their
presumption in favour of bail.
The definition of repeat offenders is laughable - anyone who has been
ever been convicted of an indictable offence or for the offence of failing
to appear in court (as an adult or child), and anyone on a good behaviour
bond, parole, probation, and so on. This would encompass about 90 per cent
of the young people who use our service. These are not hard-core
criminals, nor are they people who choose to thumb their noses at the
legal system. They are often petty offenders - kids who have been caught
shoplifting, mouthing off at police, or using drugs a couple of times, for
example. Young people who have been abused, are homeless, have a mental
illness or intellectual disability are likely to have criminal records
because of their disadvantaged situation. Getting bail, while not
impossible, is now more difficult.
The Opposition wants to take it one step further, and automatically
deny bail to anyone charged with "first-degree" murder (whatever
that is!), regardless of the strength of the evidence or the circumstances
of the alleged offender.
Bail is not a special privilege. Nor should people be refused bail as a
punishment for their alleged crime - that is supposed to come after guilt
is established. But such niceties as the presumption of innocence and the
liberty of the citizen are forgotten in this dumbed-down debate.
Our Premier has said that he will give police whatever powers they need
to "make the streets safer". While increased police presence on
the street undoubtedly makes many people feel safer, over-policing makes
the streets decidedly unsafe for some groups of people. Young people
(especially of Aboriginal, Islander, or Middle Eastern origin), drug users
and street sex workers are among those who are routinely spoken to,
searched, moved on, and - in some cases - hounded out of town.
An example is the practice adopted by police in Cabramatta, an area
with a high incidence of illicit drug use and supply. Using
"move-on" powers conferred on them by the Carr government in
recent years, police give directions to people who they believe are in
Cabramatta for the purpose of buying, selling or using drugs. Police give
each person substantially the same direction - not to come within a 2km
(sometimes 3km) radius of Cabramatta railway station for seven days.
If the person is found in Cabramatta again within the week, they will
be given another warning, and next time they will be arrested and charged
with disobeying a police direction. They will get bail, but only on the
condition that they not return to Cabramatta. We have successfully
defended a number of people in court on these charges. To be found guilty
of such an offence the police direction must be reasonable in the
circumstances - and the court has decided that these seven-day directions
On one level this is a satisfying result, but it hasn't changed police
practices. Drug users are still being hounded out of Cabramatta. From a
public health point of view this policy is a disaster - it has driven many
people into surrounding suburbs, where they are still using drugs but are
less likely to be getting the clean needles, health care and social
support that is available in Cabramatta.