Thursday 07 August, 2014

Mr TARZIA (Hartley) (16:32): I rise to also speak in support of the bill and I recognise the eminent lead of the deputy leader. By way of background, obviously it was Liberal Party policy before the last election and the party recognised the lack of community confidence that may exist in terms of suspended sentencing. At the last election we promised to undertake a broad review and reform of suspended sentencing and to limit the availability of suspended sentences. Nonetheless, I will rise to support this bill. It is essentially a tightening of the act to limit the availability for suspended sentences, especially for the most serious of offences. On the house, we obviously did commit a number of undertakings, as I just touched on.

I want to speak broadly first about suspended sentences as a whole. Arguably, they are widely misunderstood in the community. There is a serious misunderstanding in the community about courts issuing suspended sentences. They can be seen to be soft justice and that judges and magistrates should be tougher on convicted persons who commit crimes regardless of the severity or not of the offence or the antecedents. They are, however, one of the most widely used punishments used by our criminal justice system.

I bring to the house's attention a recent study done in July 2013 by the Australian Institute of Criminology about the effect of suspended sentences, broadly, in Australia, where they actually stated in the conclusion about the length of these sentences:

Taken overall, these findings support the hypothesis that offenders placed on long (24 month plus) bonds or long (12 month plus) suspended sentences are less likely to reoffend than offenders placed on short bonds or short suspended sentences.

When I speak to practitioners in the area, when I speak to judges and magistrates, it has been my experience that most of them say the same thing, that suspended sentences coupled with things like good behaviour bonds are one of the most important and effective punishments that a court can deliver to a convicted person. Certainly in my experience it has been their view, on the whole, that the majority of people given suspended sentences tend not to reoffend. I note that the Law Society, whilst it may not entirely agree with the concept, has acknowledged that this can be a serious deterrent, especially when issued with a good behaviour bond.

However—and this is not a harsh criticism—I think more can be done in this area. I do not think that the government, or in fact the judiciary, has publicly and adequately articulated the positive impact that suspended sentences can have on the justice system. I do not think they have done enough to properly explain that to the community at large, because the benefits are quite widespread. In fact, I would say that on the whole the government and the judiciary have failed utterly in that task, because there is a lot of information out there and a lot of misinformation, especially in the media.

We hear only a certain amount of facts in relation to sentencing during a news clip, and I think it is fair to say that the amount of misinformation spread into the community as a result of some reporting has not been addressed as well as it could be by this government. So I suggest to the government that if it is serious about improving the reputation of our justice system—and it obviously is—in the eyes of the community, importantly, this topic is an excellent place to start. I will certainly be pushing for greater community engagement and better education about the workings of our justice system in this regard.

In my own electorate I am involved with a number of Neighbourhood Watch groups, some of which pull about 50 to 60 people each time they meet. Felixstowe Neighbourhood Watch, especially, has been good enough to have past magistrates educate the community. It is something I am very passionate about; I think it is really important that people understand exactly how sentences are made up to ensure that the justice system is upheld and that they have the best knowledge possible about it.

I do understand that some offences will require prison, and I also understand that there are offenders for whom suspended sentences will have no impact on their future behaviour. We have all seen that, and no-one is arguing with it. However, most crimes do not involve serious violence or death and, by the Attorney's own admission, only a very small percentage of those types of crimes committed in this state fall into the parameters of the amendments that are proposed today, as the deputy leader on our side pointed out.

I do agree with the Attorney-General that if you are convicted and sentenced to more than two years' imprisonment for manslaughter or causing serious harm, I believe this parliament has the responsibility to tighten the legislation, because there have been inconsistencies in the past about this matter, as we have heard. Between 2009 and 2012 42 people were found guilty of manslaughter or of causing serious harm, and 23 had a sentence of more than two years' imprisonment suspended. That is over half. Obviously I do not know the background of each case, or the factors involved in determining each one of those sentences, but for such serious offences I believe a more punitive course of action is required. That is why I will, overall, support the amendments.

As we heard, the Law Society disagrees with us on this point—and I note I have not renewed my Law Society membership, Madam Deputy Speaker. It obviously does not support the bill because it has had a fairly consistent view, as the Deputy Leader pointed out, in regards to mandatory sentencing. I believe there is room to move on this. I do not think it is offensive to include this kind of mandatory sentencing in this form, because so few instances are caught. On the whole, I think it is a good initiative. I am happy to support the bill.