Judges fed up with drunken violence clogging our courts

Geesche Jacobsen, Joel Gibson and Deborah Snow
October 17, 2010

Chief Magistrate Graeme Henson... publicans' blame of illicit drugs is "self-serving". Photo: Brendan Esposito

JUDGES and magistrates in NSW are appalled at the epidemic level of alcohol-fuelled crime in their courts, which accounts for more than half of their work and includes violence they never imagined when they started on the bench.

They revealed their concerns as part of an investigation involving 22 on-the-record interviews with judges and magistrates.

Alcohol plays a role in 50 to 60 per cent of the nearly 300,000 criminal cases that come before the state's Local Courts each year, Chief Magistrate Graeme Henson said.

''The proliferation of alcohol in the community is obvious. We went from 10 o'clock closing to a different environment,'' he said.

Another judge, who did not want to be named, said: ''This city, which should otherwise be a sophisticated city, is largely run by a handful of hoteliers.

''The violence here is just extraordinary. You see it all the time. The wounds, the significant wounding that occurs on the weekend in the city is quite extraordinary.''

Crime statistics show about 43,000 alcohol-related assaults and incidents of offensive behaviour last year - 4700 of them in the Sydney local government area. (Each incident can generate a number of charges, and other crimes, including property damage, are often related to alcohol.)

Judge Henson rejected suggestions by publicans that the increased violence in the city is caused by illicit drugs as ''self-serving'' and ''ludicrous''.

Don Weatherburn, head of the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, said last week there was no evidence for the publicans' suggestion after a study found the use of amphetamines and cocaine among drinkers was generally low.

Reflecting on the changes, Judge Henson said: ''I grew up in an era when there were always fights at pubs but no one kicked anybody on the ground. It was considered unmanly for others to join in.

''It was invariably one on one, and women being involved in violence was simply unheard of.''

One District Court judge said he and his friends now avoided the city on Friday and Saturday nights because of the alcohol-fuelled ambience and crimes that follow on from it.

''I come to chambers early on Sunday mornings, and I think most people would be horrified to see the state of the city You have armies of people with tanks and hoses [cleaning up] hosing down the huge mess there.''

While most alcohol-related violence is low-level crime dealt with in the lower courts, the judge recently heard four appeals in a week in relation to serious acts of violence committed under the influence, two of them glassings.

Glass was used as a weapon in about 700 assaults in the state each year in recent years, statistics show.

''I think for public health reasons that people should look seriously at the amount of alcohol that young people consume socially, not only for future alcohol problems but the exposure to violence,'' Judge Henson said.

Access to alcohol also sometimes turns the most repentant offender into another statistic.

Wollongong District Court judge Paul Conlon gave several young men a suspended sentence for a violent offence, but within three weeks they had been caught kicking a person in a shopping mall.

''They gave me the impression they were so humbled they would not offend again. They go out, get on the alcohol and this is what happened,'' Justice Conlon said.

So he revoked their suspended sentence and sent the men to jail for two years for the earlier offence.

Magistrate Geoff Dunlevy said alcohol was one of the principal contributors to crime on his circuit in country NSW, especially in summer.

However, in Wilcannia, where a liquor accord has introduced restrictions on the sale of full-strength alcohol at certain times, crime has dropped, Mr Dunlevy said.

''Month after month there are fewer people coming before the court,'' he said of the aftermath of the accord. ''The seriousness of the crime is also decreasing.''