'Get tough on crime' is a game of one-upmanship that state politicians play during election campaigns. In the lead up to this year's March election in NSW, Coalition leader Barry O'Farrell announced a 'blitz on crime', committing a Coalition government to the recruitment of 550 new police officers. This was in response to Labor's Kristina Keneally, whose promises included a $60 million law enforcement package.
It was a similar story in Victoria before November's state election, with Labor's John Brumby and Coalition leader Ted Bailleau both attempting to demonstrate toughness.
Now that the elections have been won and lost, both new governments are seeking to follow through on their election pledges. What is remarkable is the different approaches to what constitutes getting tough on crime. As mentioned, NSW believes police numbers is the answer. The Victorian Government, on the other hand, plans legislation to ensure more offenders are jailed.
To that end, the state's Attorney-General Robert Clark recently asked Victoria's Sentencing Advisory Council to look into minimum jail terms for teenagers convicted of violent crime. Meanwhile his NSW counterpart Greg Smith has vowed to reform the state's prison system by cutting what is Australia's largest prison population.
NSW is looking at Victoria's current relatively low rate of incarceration as a model. Victoria is seeking to adopt NSW attitudes from the era when, according to Smith, former premier Nathan Rees thought it was a 'badge of honour' to have 10,000 people in the jails.
Jesuit Social Services CEO Julie Edwards has spearheaded an innovative approach to protecting young offenders at risk. She has criticised Victoria's indiscriminate 'one size fits all' approach to sentencing and suggested the state's Attorney General should 'look north of the border as the new Liberal Government looks to reduce Australia's largest jail population by diverting offenders away from the prison system and reducing the rate of re-offending'.
Under the current Victorian law, the judiciary has the ability to hand out a harsh sentence if the situation requires. She argues that taking this flexibility away by fixing sentences in law is a backwards step. 'Judges, not politicians, should be setting sentences. When you are unwell you go and see a doctor… [not] your local politician.'
Edwards also points out that the idea that the electorate wants harsh treatment for offenders is a furphy. She cites the Tasmanian Jury Sentencing Study, which found that from a survey of jurors, 90 per cent agreed the judge's sentence was very or fairly appropriate, with more than half of those surveyed leaning towards greater leniency than the judge's sentence.
The NSW Government is not alone in its recognition of Victoria's enlightened approach to law and order, where helping to keep young people out of prison through early intervention has been the key to preventing crime and ensuring community safety.
Michael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street. Follow him on Twitter.
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05 June 2011
how is it that our anglo-christian nation is so determined to exercise punitive justice? where does it come from? Not the Gospel! where can australia find a heart for forgiveness, resurrection, hope, joy, new life for those without hope, those deemed hopeless by the politicians? Victoria now has more jails than ever; more indigenous youth in jail than ever... hopeless and depressing!
06 June 2011
Last year I went to the funeral of a young man who had spent a lot of his youth in jail for drug related offences. Lots of public money had gone into keeping him 'safe'in jail but it seemed that the public purse dud not extend to helping him to live safely in the world outside. His problems had been exacerbated in jail. Jailing kids is no answer.
06 June 2011
Having worked in a prison I agree with those who advocate a preventative approach to young offenders rather that the political heavy handed puitive approach. Young offenders become embittered against authority and consequently are more likely to become recidivist criminals . When I hear a politician utter those policy words "Tough on crime "I shudder.
06 June 2011
Patricia Bouma asks "where does punitive justice come from?" Perhaps from the very first story of the Old Testament where human kind was punished by God for all time because of the transgressions of Adam and Eve. Perhaps from the many references in the Gospels to eternal punishment and the Last Judgement.
06 June 2011
Here in France 96 people are imprisoned for every 100,000 in the population. Australia is too high at the moment with 129. Top of the list is the USA at 756. Is the USA a safer place for its vast prisons network? No, the opposite is true
06 June 2011
A great issue, Michael, and your piece was a great lead to the other articles. You expose the dangerous nonsense of politicians who pretend to think that imprisoning people solves just about everything.
07 June 2011
Atheism in its modern forms sees salvation through science and "Law and Order". They think that by imposing the Law through more police and longer prison sentences the world will be made a better place,which in practise does not work. Churches have found it hard to persuade people through the Media that "Religion" is not some superstitous relic but a means of coming to terms with our mortality and failings leading to personal growth and fulfillment. Our successes come from our care of the unfortunate and pastoral ministry rather than preaching. In Victoria the work of chaplains in high Schools must be commended.