Thursday, June 16, 2011

Mandatory teen thug terms 'misguided'

Adrian Lowe | The Age | June 16, 2011
THE state government has been accused of being misguided over its plan for mandatory sentences for 16 and 17-year-olds convicted of violent crimes.
New figures show that the targeted offences make up less than 1 per cent of proven cases in the Children's Court, and a peak legal group has warned that the changes in the laws for adult offenders for the same crimes could lead to further delays in an already stretched County Court.
The government has requested advice from the Sentencing Advisory Council on its proposal to introduce statutory minimum jail terms for the crimes of intentionally causing serious injury and recklessly causing serious injury where the offender uses gross violence.
Adult offenders will be subject to a four-year statutory minimum jail term, while 16 and 17-year-olds face a minimum of two years' jail.
The council has recently released data showing that just 0.2 per cent of proven cases in the Children's Court involved intentionally causing serious injury between 2000 and 2009, and just 0.7 per cent involved recklessly causing serious injury.
The Law Institute of Victoria believes that those figures indicate the government is on the wrong track. ''The sentencing statistics alone indicate that such a severe reaction in terms of mandatory sentencing is not warranted,'' said James Dowsley, co-chairman of the institute's criminal law section.
RMIT law lecturer Michael Benes said the government's approach was ''absolutely misguided''. ''Sentencing overall has become the most politicised area of law,'' he said, and ''mandatory schemes represent the most overt attempts to impose political control over judges.''
But Attorney-General Robert Clark said the government's view ''all along'' had been that cases of gross violence involving juvenile offenders were likely to be relatively small in number - but ''it is important to protect the community and send a clear message that gross violence will have serious consequences''.
There are also question marks over how the laws will work in practice. Among the council's other figures are that 76 per cent of recklessly causing serious injury cases heard in 2008-2009 were determined in the Magistrates Court. But the maximum jail sentence that a magistrate can impose for a single offence is two years, which the council believes will mean all such cases will have to be heard in the County Court.
Mr Dowsley said the County Court would face an increase in the number of trials because many offenders would be dissuaded from plea negotiations if faced with a minimum term.
Mr Clark said a decision on whether the statutory minimums would apply to each case or each count involved in a case would be decided after the Sentencing Advisory Council returned its advice.

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