Top judge targets tough jail sentences

June 18, 2010


ONE of the state's most senior sitting judges has made an extraordinary call for a rethink on law and order policy in NSW, saying excessive sentences and imprisonment rates have created a billion-dollar-plus prisons budget without a corresponding increase in public safety.

Justice Reg Blanch oversees most of the serious criminal trials in NSW as the Chief Judge of the District Court and spent six years prosecuting them as the director of public prosecutions.


He called for a ''calm review'' of bail laws, standard non-parole periods, mandatory disqualification for some driving offences and the definition of some sexual assaults, which had all contributed to a record prison population of more than 10,000.

YOUR SAY: What do you think about the judge's statements?

Justice Blanch rarely offers political commentary but told Legal Aid lawyers at a recent conference that NSW had lost the correct balance between the need to protect the community and the cost to the community of that protection.

In doing so, he contradicted the claims of the state government that packed jails were keeping people safer.

His comments come as the shadow attorney-general, Greg Smith, revealed he was recommending an independent review of bail and sentencing laws as part of opposition policy.

Justice Blanch's speech echoed a chorus of retired judges and magistrates, lawyers, academics and prison staff, including his successor as DPP, Nicholas Cowdery, QC, who have been calling for changes to tough bail and sentencing laws.

While Victoria spent half as much on jailing people, he said, ''I venture to suggest that there is no greater level of safety in NSW and that the level of crime is no less as a result of the increase in sentences.

''Jail sentences must be imposed in many cases, and in some the sentence should be substantial, but the real question is: how much is enough?

''Do we need to spend a billion dollars on prisons and could we achieve the same ends at a lesser cost?''

A quarter of the state's prisoners had not yet been convicted of an offence, he said. ''On the whole it has to be said almost all persons on bail answer their bail and, although there are instances of offences committed on bail, it cannot be said to be a common occurrence.''

Sentencing had also become disproportionate to many crimes, with the result that offenders were held in jail for longer, meaning many had ''extreme difficulty'' re-integrating into society, he said.

And driver's licence cancellations had resulted in the jailing of drivers who could not be considered dangerous. This hit rural communities especially hard.

The Bail Reform Alliance, which includes organisations representing lawyers, prison staff and prosecutors, has lobbied the Premier, Kristina Keneally, and the Attorney-General, John Hatzistergos, for an independent review of the Bail Act - but to no avail.

''What does it take to get both the government and the opposition to deal with these issues?'' said its convener, the retired magistrate Max Taylor.

But Mr Smith said he was in the process of recommending that a review of bail and sentencing laws by a retired judge become opposition policy.

''I've been saying for some time we need to rewrite the Bail Act Bail should only be refused where there's a likelihood of further crime being committed or it's likely you are going to interfere with witnesses or abscond,'' Mr Smith said.

The government is rewriting the Bail Act to make it clearer but has said it does not intend big policy changes.

A spokesman for Mr Hatzistergos said standard non-parole periods had achieved better consistency in sentencing, as shown by a Judicial Commission report last month.




Commentary by the Ottawa Mens Centre


Justice Reg Blanch and Greg Smith are to be commended for having the courage to say what is obvious to all the professionals in the justice system. Increasingly, western politicians choose the cheap and nasty way of gaining political popularity by coming up with ever more draconian negative options that cost society billions. Its that economic cost to soceity that should ring alarm bells as the present political trend is nothing less than an economic spiral dive. Very roughly, one dollar spent on social measures to address root causes, saves ten dollars on the cost of incarceration. The cost of incarceration removes dollars that would otherwise be spent on social measures, that address the cause not the public opinion. The Right Wing red neck law and order addicts need to get a grasp on the graphs of spending, which shows a stagering alteration towards the vertical that simply cannot be maintained. Justice Reg Blanch is simply a "economic and social stall warning" siren going off and its an indicator of many other problems that require a joint approach by all involved regardless of political parties. Packing people like sardines creates very disturbed very angry personalities which become breeding grounds for creating the worst personalities most predisposed to commit crimes of anger. The justice system needs to use the incredible breadth and depth of intelligent knowledgable resources that are available which start with, the very experienced criminal judges who see what happens in the long term. Then you have probation officers, social workers, jail guards, police etc. The danger is that all to often, the political far right, simply fire off more law and order demands without any consideration of the root causes or of the long term harm to society.