Ian Gray: ''A lot of concern.''

VICTORIA'S chief magistrate has taken a broad swipe at the Baillieu government's tough-on-crime agenda, condemning mandatory imprisonment as a ''straitjacket'' on courts.

Ian Gray also attacked the government's controversial sentencing survey as too narrow, saying it was unlikely to reflect ''broad public consensus''.

''When only very limited information about a particular case is given, you're more likely to get a superficial, under-informed response,'' he said.

Mr Gray's comments follow criticism of the survey in The Sunday Age last week by Supreme Court judge David Harper, president of the Judicial Conference of Australia.

The chief magistrate said government plans to introduce mandatory prison terms and baseline minimum sentences for serious crimes wrongly suggested courts were too lenient.

He rejected criticisms by Premier Ted Baillieu before last year's state election, when he was in opposition, that ''Victorians are sick and tired of seeing offenders receive hopelessly inadequate sentences''.

''I just do not accept that as a broad critique of sentencing in this state,'' Mr Gray said. ''The most violent offenders in the community are routinely sent to prison for their serious crimes.''

Judicial discretion was essential in sentencing offenders, he said. ''Mandatory sentencing causes me, and I think causes all magistrates, a lot of concern if they feel that it will limit their ability to do justice case by case There is a risk of injustice when the straitjacket is too tight.''

The government has proposed mandatory prison terms for ''thugs who inflict gross violence on their victims'' - with offenders aged 16 and 17 receiving two-year minimum sentences and adults four years.

Mr Gray, who declined to comment on the plan, said a ''one-size-fits-all'' system could disproportionately punish some offenders and reduce confidence in the courts.

''If the community hears judges from time to time saying, 'In this case I am required to impose a sentence I consider to be unjust because the law dictates that I do,' then I think there may be an issue for community confidence,'' he said.

A spokesman for Attorney-General Robert Clark said the proposed statutory minimum sentences, which are being examined by the Sentencing Advisory Council, would ''send a clear message that gratuitous attacks of extreme violence on innocent Victorians would see the perpetrator in jail for at least four years, save in truly exceptional circumstances''.

Mr Clark was happy to meet Mr Gray to discuss any concerns, he added.

The proposed mandatory terms will apply unless the circumstances of a case are so exceptional that a court is entitled to assume Parliament did not intend such a case to be covered.

Law societies from every state and the Northern Territory have written to Mr Clark saying the plan will trap many young people in a life of crime and increase rates of offending.

Mr Gray also criticised the government's sentencing survey, which was released last month, saying it provided ''very limited facts in respect of each offence'' and could produce an overly punitive response.

Justice Harper told The Sunday Age last week there was ''a danger that the overall results will not reflect the totality of public opinion''.

Mr Gray said politicians had a duty to promote balanced, informed debate.

But Noel McNamara, of the Crime Victims Support Association, said courts were out of touch with community expectations.

''A murder is a murder, a bashing is a bashing, a rape is a rape and someone has got to pay their debt to society.''