Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Life sentences won't do justice

Editorial | SMH | May 24, 2011
THE O'Farrell government's pursuit of mandatory life sentences for those convicted of murdering police makes no sense. Like most serious crimes, the offence has many gradations - from cold-blooded premeditated execution through to irrational, spur-of-the-moment violence. No one suggests the state does not owe police a high duty of care or that the taking of a police officer's life should not be harshly punished. But exempting the murder of a police officer from the application of judicial discretion goes beyond enshrining police in a privileged legal status that holds a police officer's life is more precious than that of other citizens, including those called on occasionally to put themselves in harm's way so that others can be safer.
The exemption goes to the issue of legal effectiveness. If the murder of police does not warrant a judge's cool and wise weighing of factors of criminal severity and circumstance, why should we bother with judicial discretion in sentencing for any offence? Simply apply a mandated punishment to fit crime categories across the board, as was tried in NSW with such spectacular failure in the 1890s. Indeed, that initiative was promptly revoked when colonials came to recognise that punishments exceeded the crimes.
The government suggests none of us should be surprised by its announcement of legislation this week to ensure future convicted murderers of police are never released from jail. The Premier said it had been Coalition policy since 2002. But that is only one element of public expectation because the Attorney-General, Greg Smith, promised before the election, and seemingly authoritatively, to end the law-and-order auction that traditionally preceded NSW state polls.
Like his former boss Nick Cowdery, Smith must know that the singling out of murdered police is little more than a sop to the police union and others whose antagonism to judicial discretion appears predicated on the strange notion that being locked away in a jail for several years is a cakewalk, that any sentence short of ''never to be released'' is an incentive to do evil, that the dead are dishonoured and justice is denied if their killers do not cop an eye for an eye.
Smith served as a deputy to Cowdery when the latter was the NSW director of public prosecutions. Now the master admonishes the apprentice. ''It is surprising that a lawyer with Greg Smith's experience would support a retrograde move towards mandatory sentencing knowing that it produces injustice and has no effect in preventing crime,'' Cowdery said.
Welcome to the realpolitik, Mr Smith.

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