Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A view from the Bench

One of the most respected figures in the NSW criminal justice system is Justice Reg Blanch, Chief Judge of the District Court.

He served as NSW's first Director of Public Prosecutions, before then overseeing the administration of the District Court across the State. He drove huge improvements in the efficiency of the Court, including cutting the long waiting lists for trials, a reform which had a very real effect on both victims and prisoners remanded in custody. At the same time, he has exerted a huge influence over the largest Court in the State, the Local Court, by deciding appeals from Magistrates in Sydney, as well as continuing to sit in the Court of Criminal Appeal.

Justice Blanch rarely speaks in public, but last June gave a speech to a Legal Aid Commission conference that was reported here by Joel Gibson in the SMH. It was reported that Blanch:

  • made an extraordinary call for a rethink on law and order policy in NSW, saying excessive sentences and imprisonment rates have created a billion-dollar-plus prisons budget without a corresponding increase in public safety.

  • called for a ''calm review'' of bail laws, standard non-parole periods, mandatory disqualification for some driving offences and the definition of some sexual assaults, which had all contributed to a record prison population of more than 10,000

  • said that NSW had lost the correct balance between the need to protect the community and the cost to the community of that protection.

  • had, by his comments, contradicted the claims of the state government that packed jails were keeping people safer.

The following of Blanch's speech was also reported:

  • While Victoria spent half as much on jailing people, he said, ''I venture to suggest that there is no greater level of safety in NSW and that the level of crime is no less as a result of the increase in sentences.

  • ''Jail sentences must be imposed in many cases, and in some the sentence should be substantial, but the real question is: how much is enough?

  • ''Do we need to spend a billion dollars on prisons and could we achieve the same ends at a lesser cost?''

  • A quarter of the state's prisoners had not yet been convicted of an offence, he said. ''On the whole it has to be said almost all persons on bail answer their bail and, although there are instances of offences committed on bail, it cannot be said to be a common occurrence.''

  • Sentencing had also become disproportionate to many crimes, with the result that offenders were held in jail for longer, meaning many had ''extreme difficulty'' re-integrating into society, he said.

  • And driver's licence cancellations had resulted in the jailing of drivers who could not be considered dangerous. This hit rural communities especially hard.

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