Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Hardline A-G hits back at his critics

Anna Patty | SMH | February 3, 2012

It didn't take long for the vitriol over the state government's approach to law and order to start.

Ten months after the NSW election, the opposition and tabloid media have been dishing it out to the Attorney-General, Greg Smith, accusing him of being soft on crime.

One radio talk-back host recently accused Smith of being a step away from the Greens, saying he had failed to earn his stripes as a conservative Attorney-General.

When it comes to the rehabilitation of non-violent offenders, Smith would agree.

He says he is "more left-wing on issues like dealing with prisoners and rehabilitation than any other Attorney-General in the country".

But Smith, reputed as a tough public prosecutor when he worked for the DPP - having put away murderers including those who killed policeman David Carty - is hardline when it comes to serious violence.

In response to a recent spate of drive-by shootings in Sydney's south-west, the opposition and some commentators have confused the distinction Smith has made between his different approaches to sentencing and rehabilitation.

He believes in non-custodial sentences for less serious offenders and rehabilitation for people with drug and alcohol addiction or mental health problems.

When it comes to people guilty of serious violent crime, including the "buffoons" responsible for the shootings, repeat offenders and those guilty of child sex offences, Smith wants to toughen punishments.

Smith recently asked the Supreme Court to look at how judgments against people convicted of sex offences against children could be strengthened.

The government is grappling with how it can fight gang violence and has recruited the Crime Commission's help in compelling witnesses to help police with their investigations.

The acting Police Commissioner, Nick Kaldas, has complained about police being unable to compel victims of crime and witnesses to help police with their investigations.

The first charge to be laid against a person who had allegedly pulled the trigger was made at the weekend. Until then, police had only been able to charge accessories to the drive-by shooting crimes.

The government has ruled out giving police crime commission powers to compel witnesses to co-operate, but believes the answer to the problem may lie in strengthening existing provisions in the Crimes Act to prevent bikie-gangs from consorting.

The Rees government introduced anti-bikie gang legislation which was struck out by the High Court last year.

Other states including South Australia and Queensland have had problems in drafting similar laws.

According to the Law Society, there were numerous problems with the NSW version and it would take more than mere "tinkering", as asserted by the Opposition, to address them.

Smith says the government response to the problem would not be an "over-the-top knee-jerk" one after parliament returns on February 14.

Opposition Leader John Robertson has attacked the government for being slow to act and his recent press release said “another day, another drive by – 59 shootings in 10 months – where is Barry O'Farrell?”. Today it updated the figure to 60 after shots were fired at a school in Lurnea.

What the opposition fails to mention is that the number of drive-by shootings peaked at 102 in 12 months under Labor, from October 2008 to September 2009.

There have been an average of 73 to 78 drive-by shootings each year since 2006.

Acting Commissioner Kaldas says that, while the number has been higher in previous years, police are concerned about getting on top of the latest spike of shootings.

Smith says he refuses to buckle to media pressure and the opposition's fear mongering to provide a knee-jerk response.

When it comes to less serious offences, Smith believes the jailing of adults and remanding of children was corrupting many and increasing their chances of reoffending, creating a bigger problem for the community.

He says he wants to challenge "the political correctness" of the law and order bidding war.

Smith started the fight in opposition when he vowed to end the law and order auction - the tradition whereby each side of politics tries to outbid the other on how tough it can be on crime.

Smith says he has been preparing for this battle for some time and is up to fighting.

"I'm not going to just give up because of a bit of criticism. And the Premier is right behind me. We want to be smart on crime.”

The promises to increase punishments, which have characterised every state election campaign since 1988, have filled jails, but have done little to reduce the rate of reoffending.

The Carr government filled multiple statute books with its promises to jack up punishments for high-profile crimes.

More often than not, those responses led to ill-considered policies which have clogged the jail system and drained state government coffers.

During his time at the department of public prosecutions, Smith was frustrated with overly complex sentencing laws and it was this that led him into politics. As Attorney-General, he has directed the Law Reform Commission to review those laws.

This review was on the government's agenda before the election and is not linked to the government's response to drive-by shootings, as asserted by critics.

Labor failed to find a solution to bikie gang violence. Whether the Liberal/National Coalition has more success remains to be seen.

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