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Terms of Reference for Review of Phasing Out of Suspended Sentences

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP  -  Tuesday, 10 November 2020

Tags: Suspended Sentences, Justice, Corrections

Dr WOODRUFF (Franklin) - Madam Speaker, the Sentencing Amendment (Phasing Out of Suspended Sentences) Bill passed in 2017 and it was not supported by the Greens. We have long stood with the evidence of what works in turning around rates of recidivism, keeping the community safer, and ensuring that we use public moneys in Corrections to rehabilitate people rather than to lock them into a life of continual crime. We have always supported any legislation that will achieve those outcomes.

It is very well understood by the legal profession and people who look at prison regimes around the world that prisons lock people into a criminal cycle and it can often be for life. They lead to less safe communities and take an enormous amount of public resources. You have only to look at the huge changes that are occurring in parts of the United States. Texas is outstanding in that area where they have closed four prisons in the last handful of years, so there are big changes in place. They all draw from a similar well, and that is providing a range of alternative sentencing options, and a suite of rehabilitation which is genuine and properly financed. In this regard, this Government has dropped the ball in almost all of those areas, albeit with some important exceptions.

One of the first things that the Liberals did when they came into Government was to cut the REO program. It was a mere $200 000 a year at the time; a program successfully run by charities working with people as they exited prison to make sure they had a house, to connect them to housing, and also to support them get a job and help them reintegrate with their family and reintegrate into the community. That program established under the Greens Corrections minister from 2010 to 2014 was so successful by the time the Liberals defunded it that it had zero per cent recidivism from the inmates who went through the program. Of the people who exited prison, none of them reoffended. That is an extraordinary accomplishment and it speaks volumes about the ideology which governs the Corrections portfolio under this Government, which came in 2014 under a mandate to be tough on crime and to make populist decisions which, on the face of them, look as though being hard on people is going to be effective and make the community safer. In fact, all the statistics since 2014 are worsening.

The rates of violence in prisons from inmate to inmate and from inmate to officer, have been going up. Rates of compensation claims from prison staff and sick leave of prison staff, have gone through the roof - not to mention the actual number of people in prison and also community crime rates. The annual rates each year for certain crimes in the community have also been increasing. It gives the lie to the idea that the so-called tough on crime approach makes the community safer. That is what people want and it is what they are looking for in a corrections minister and in a government - they want a government that keeps people safe.

When you do not fund education and literacy programs for people in prison, that has an effect on their ability to go out and get a job, rather than petty crime and petty theft or selling drugs. Many people who go to jail have very low literacy rates. They need support. That is a perfect time to help them get an education, and the first thing is to learn to read. All of those programs have dropped off.

Ms Archer - No, they haven't. Rosalie Martin.

Dr WOODRUFF - Minister, it is great that there are some exemplary models, but I can assure you that over the years I have heard from staff and from people who have been working providing that literacy education, through TasTAFE, that it has evaporated.

Ms Archer - No it is not. We have re-released TasTAFE.

Dr WOODRUFF - There is a problem. Maybe something has changed in the last five minutes but there is a real problem with options that are there.

Ms Archer - Stop making stuff up.

Dr WOODRUFF - It is there on paper, but inmates cannot access it because they are in their prison cells. They cannot have the education programs because the cells are not open for people to attend. You can say that but, minister, I hear time and again from officers who are talking about the experience of inmates, or from legal representatives where inmates cannot get to those sessions.

It is one thing to offer them on paper and to have them funded on paper, but it is another thing to seriously make them available to people, and to keep them up on a regular basis so people can learn to read. It is not easy to enable an adult to learn to read.

Let us return to the motion at hand. Suspended sentences were one tried and true method for reducing reoffending. They remain a method that can be chosen by judges as an alternative to incarceration. The original Sentencing Advisory Committee, on the then Liberal Party's policy proposal to abolish suspended sentences, was prevented from examining that actual question and from asking whether abolishing suspended sentences would be the correct path to take. The terms of reference given to the Sentencing Advisory Council did not enable them to make a deliberation about whether suspended sentences should be abolished.

Now this bill has passed through the lower House, although the Greens did not support it. It went to the upper House and the bill was amended by Leonie Hiscutt, presumably under pressure from other Legislative Council members. I have not read the detail of that debate, but the amendments that were provided in the bill are that suspended sentence provisions were not able to commence until between 18 months and two years have passed since the commencement of the other provisions. Those provisions referred to in the bill commenced on 14 December 2018, so it is not quite two years but I am assuming it will be by the time this bill passes here and the other place - if it passes.

Ms Archer - Is it 18 months, no sooner than 18 months.

Dr WOODRUFF - It would be two years from December 2018.

The second amendment provided that the terms of reference for a SAC review are to be provided to both Houses of parliament, and that is the current stage.

The third amendment was that the report by the Tasmanian Law Reform Institute (TLRI) is to be tabled, and the SAC in the terms of reference before us has advised that that will occur within 12 months.

The fourth amendment was that a notice of intention to commence sections 8, 10 and 19 is to be tabled, and not disallowed within 10 sitting days.

Madam Speaker, I will make a few comments about the terms of reference. The terms of reference is an important document. The SAC has approved them and has been involved in their development. I think that is correct?

Ms Archer - They have actively been involved.

Dr WOODRUFF - The Greens do not support the phasing out of suspended sentences for the reasons I have given. It is important for judges to be able to determine what the appropriate sentencing option is and alternatives to imprisonment.

We support the other matters that the terms of reference for this review will investigate, namely, home detention and community corrections orders, and court mandated drug treatment orders. These are very important options for judges to have and are essential, as the minister has said, for people to be able to have full rehabilitation if they have drug addictions. They also provide opportunities to relieve stress on the prison, and provide people with opportunities to be involved in a range of community correction activities.

There are only four terms under the terms of reference for the SAC dealing with the phasing out of suspended sentences. That seems very paltry given the big question about suspended sentence orders and what contribution they make. We would have included more extensive terms, but I am persuaded that number 29 - any other matters considered relevant - should give the Sentencing Advisory Council plenty of scope to examine and make recommendations about any other matter they consider relevant in this instance.

The lack of detail does not preclude the SAC from extensively writing on any matter that they think to be relevant. On that basis, we are comfortable with the terms of reference that have been provided, and we look forward to reading the results of the report when it is finished and tabled within 12 months.