Opposition to Mandatory Sentencing

I oppose the Crimes Amendment (Murder of Police Officers) Bill 2011, which introduces a mandatory life sentence for persons convicted of murdering a police officer. I strongly support New South Wales police and for all my time as an elected representative I have worked very closely with them in the inner city. I commend New South Wales police for their work protecting the community in tough and dangerous situations. I believe they have a particularly demanding and stressful job, particularly in the inner city where alcohol-fuelled violence is a regular occurrence every weekend, and the situation for them is dangerous. I support harsh penalties for crimes committed against them, but I do not support mandatory sentences, particularly life sentences.

In our system of justice sentencing is the role of the courts, where the circumstances of each particular case can be taken into account. All cases are different and a just sentence should be determined based on an offender's personal circumstances, life experience and rehabilitation opportunities, as well as the interests of the victim's family and the wider community. This bill would remove the court's ability to ensure that the punishment fits the crime, forcing a uniform blanket sentence regardless of circumstances.

I understand from the Law Society of New South Wales that persons convicted of murdering a police officer are already subject to a standard non-parole period of 25 years, which can be increased to someone's natural life if a court determines that is appropriate. I agree with the society that 25 years non-parole is a strong starting point for a sentence. Mandatory sentencing goes against the longstanding principle of the separation of powers by transferring sentencing from independent courts to the Parliament and the Executive, politicising sentencing and reducing the opportunity for justice. In 1999 when the injustices of mandatory detention laws in the Northern Territory and Western Australia were coming to light, Justice Michael Adams of the Supreme Court stated in a Law Journal article that mandatory sentencing "is tantamount to a vote of no confidence in the judiciary". The Government needs to tell us why it has lost confidence in the courts to determine the appropriate sentence in murder cases of police officers.

The Government tries to justify this bill with a claim that a mandatory life sentence will be a deterrent against the murder of police officers, yet it has provided no evidence in support of this. Meanwhile most research to date has found that mandatory sentences fail to prevent crime. Mandatory sentencing in the Northern Territory failed to deter people from committing property offences, and tougher and mandatory penalties in the United States of America helped achieve nothing but high imprisonment rates. It is absurd to argue that someone who plans to, or who in the heat of the moment chooses to, murder a police officer, would weigh up their likely sentence in such a way that the prospect of serving life over the prospect of serving at least 25 years will influence their decision. In fact, the Law Society of New South Wales points out that the knowledge of a mandatory life sentence could lead someone who has killed a police officer to commit additional crimes, including the murder of other officers, because they no longer have anything to lose.

The Law Society's submission on this bill presents other problems with mandatory sentencing, including the burden on courts with the removal of any incentive to plead guilty, removal of incentives to get someone co-accused of murder to cooperate and give evidence, and the potential to influence not-guilty verdicts from juries. The society also points out that non-parole life sentences pose problems in prison facilities because there is no incentive for a prisoner to behave, or engage in rehabilitation or education. The bill would also breach provisions under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Australia ratified in 1980, which require sentences to be reviewable by a higher tribunal. In conclusion, sentencing is not something that should be done by formula—it is up to the courts to get it right and ensure justice. This bill removes the court's ability to do that, and I cannot support it.

To read full debate go to NSW Parliament website, HERE.