Mandatory jail terms are not the way to cut crime

Mandatory jail terms are not the way to cut crime

This piece was first published in the Herald Sun.

We need to take action to cut crime in Victoria, but the proposal from the Opposition Leader, Matthew Guy, to introduce new mandatory minimum jail terms is the wrong approach. It will be costly, ineffective and lead to injustice.

Mandatory sentencing produces injustice because it makes it harder for the courts to ensure the punishment fits the crime.

In Victoria, we already have mandatory jail for gross violence such as recklessly causing serious injury in a group attack or after the victim is incapacitated. Sounds reasonable doesn’t it? It does until you realise that politicians simply can’t predict all the circumstances that might be captured – which is why judges need some discretion.

For example take the three friends in 2013 who saw a man punch a woman unconscious in Bourke Street. The friends helped the woman and then chased the man and confronted him. They kicked and punched him including a kick after he was on the ground and he suffered a fractured skull. The judge recognised the good intentions of the men but warned against taking the law into their own hands. Because of the circumstances, she didn’t impose a conviction or a jail term. But if the assault had happened after the gross violence laws came into force, she could have been forced to give them minimum four year jail terms.

Frustratingly Matthew Guy’s announcement has a real groundhog day feel to it. We’ve been here before and we’ve made these mistakes before.

In 2010, claiming that Victorians were ‘sick and tired of seeing offenders receive hopelessly inadequate sentences time and time again’, the Coalition Opposition promised a raft of so-called tough on crime policies and were elected to office.

They introduced baseline sentences and mandatory minimum sentences for gross violence. They abolished suspended sentences and home detention and made it harder to get bail, meaning more people are locked up waiting their trial. They restricted parole, meaning more prisoners are serving their full sentence and being released straight into the community without the conditions, supervision and reporting requirements that parole involves.

At the same time, they cut funding for TAFE, vocational high school qualifications (VCAL and VET) and housing support programs.

The results? After dropping every year for a decade under the Bracks and Brumby Governments, crime went up and has continued to rise every year since.

After dropping every year for 8 years, reoffending rates have risen sharply since 2010/11. Prisoner numbers skyrocketed, rising almost 40% between 2011 and 2016. Police and prison spending skyrocketed. The Auditor-General and the Ombudsman both warned about prison overcrowding and lack of access to prisoner programs that reduce risks of reoffending.

With results like these you think the Coalition might have learned a lesson. Instead, we’ve got promises of a new ‘tough approach’ with mandatory jail terms and more announcements to come.

Promises like these aren’t tough. They’re lazy. It’s easy for a politician who wants to appear to be tackling crime to promise new offences, more jail time and reduced court discretion.

This is exactly what happened in the US from the 1970’s onwards, leading to mass imprisonment and acute impacts on African American and other communities. But things are changing there and it’s not just coming from progressive politicians. Conservative US lawmakers, concerned about the ineffectiveness and cost of ever longer jail terms, are supporting new approaches like ‘justice reinvestment’.

Justice reinvestment directs funding away from prisons towards programs that prevent crime. In Texas, these approaches cut prison numbers and redirected savings to crime prevention initiatives. Crime has gone down and other states are replicating Texas’ success.

This is the direction Victoria should head. We need to combat the things that fuel crime. The evidence from criminologists around the world is clear – the most effective way to cut crime is to tackle its causes, like child neglect, poor education, poor housing and alcohol and substance abuse. This is where our focus should be - on preventing crime, not responding after the damage is done.

Victoria’s Royal Commission into Family Violence made important recommendations to prevent family violence. To its credit, the Andrews Government is implementing them and devoting substantial resources to the task. The Royal Commission chose not to recommend mandatory sentences, noting the “evidence on the limited effectiveness of imprisonment as a means of deterring offenders, rehabilitating offenders and reducing crime”.

Mandatory jail terms are a blunt and costly way to reduce crime. Everyone knows that violent crime has devastating consequences on individuals and communities, but mandatory sentences are the wrong tool for the job.

The Coalition should abandon mandatory jail terms and start working on policies that will actually prevent crime from happening in the first place.

Hugh de Kretser is the Executive Director of the Human Rights Law Centre @hughdekretser