Final abolition of suspended sentences in Victoria the wrong path to community safety, says Smart Justice

September 01, 2014 |

The abolition of suspended sentences in the Magistrates’ Court from today will likely see an increase in fines and imprisonment for lower-level offending, worsening prison overcrowding and wasteful prison spending, and undermining community safety, according to the Smart Justice project.

“Work by the Sentencing Advisory Council following the first 18 months of the abolition of suspended sentences in higher courts shows that there is little evidence that courts are using community corrections orders as alternatives to suspended sentences.

“With today’s final step in the abolition of suspended sentences in Victoria, there is a risk that people who pose little threat to community safety will go to prison for low-level offending, at great expense to the State and with little or no benefit in terms of reduced crime,” Michelle McDonnell, Smart Justice spokesperson said today.

“Particularly with the lower-level offending dealt with in the Magistrates’ Court, we need to expand prison alternatives that are proven to reduce reoffending rather than increase the chances that low-level offenders will be sent to prison, given we know prison increases the likelihood of reoffending on release.

“Suspended sentences carried the direct threat of imprisonment should offenders not desist from offending behaviour, and they offered the additional flexibility of suspending part or all of a custodial sentence. That flexibility is now lost,” Ms McDonnell said.

Work by Catholic Social Services has also predicted that, even if community corrections orders were to be used as alternatives to suspended sentences, this would place unsustainable pressures on support and supervision services as well as adding to prisoner numbers.

The prison population has already increased by 1,362 (30 per cent) in the last three years and there are another 2,500 beds currently planned or being built.

“You’re looking at unsustainable pressure on the corrections system either way. Placing additional pressure on support and supervision services will undermine their effectiveness. Ultimately, this measure will fuel demand for additional prison capacity, with little evidence that community safety will benefit.

She said that the premature move to complete the abolition of suspended sentences in Victoria had also come before the handing down of Victoria’s first ever Court of Appeal guideline judgment to assist courts to more effectively and consistently consider community corrections orders as alternatives to suspended sentences.

“We call on the Victorian Government to commit to monitoring the impact of abolishing suspended sentences and sharing the evidence as to whether this reform improves community safety. It’s easy to appeal to community safety, but showing that policies achieve it is a different matter,” Ms McDonnell concluded.

Smart Justice is a coalition of 29 organisations led by the Federation of Community Legal Centres.

For fact sheets on evidence-based justice policy, visit www.smartjustice.org.au