Web_Court_sentencingON THE face of it, a decision by Wonthaggi Magistrate Steven Raleigh to hand a suspended jail sentence to a local offender after a disturbing case of family violence would not appear to be acceptable to the community. Most people would say an immediate term of imprisonment was warranted. The man was convicted of the very serious charge of reckless conduct endangering life and making two threats to kill, among other assault crimes against his mother, but he effectively walked free from court on the day.

Many would say that’s not good enough if we are to get serious about the rise and rise in family violence, most often alcohol-related, as it was in this case. But it’s too simplistic to insist on a jail term every time, just as the State Government has done in making the unilateral decision earlier this year to phase out suspended jail sentences at Magistrate’s Court level, no later than September 2014. As Mr Raleigh pointed out in the Wonthaggi Court last Friday, when that new legislation takes effect, there will not be enough room in Victoria’s prisons for all the inmates the change will generate, even when the new Ravenhall Prison in Melbourne’s outer western suburbs is expanded from 500 to 1000 beds. Mr Raleigh agreed that the plea from the man’s mother was the only thing that stopped him from going straight to jail, but on the other hand he also placed a 24-month period on the six-month suspended sentence meaning that the man cannot commit an offence of any sort in that time.

Where he might have received several months in jail and then been released into the community without any trailing penalty hanging over his head, the offender now has the incentive to keep his nose clean for two years. Which is the better result for the community? There may also be health issues and other matters not detailed in open court that could have been taken into account by the magistrate in making his measured decision. In other words, it’s never cut and dried. Which is why you’d have to view the decision to eliminate suspended sentencing at the Magistrates’ Court level, by a State Government, intent on proving its law and order credentials to the voting public, with suspicion. Where are the prison beds to back up such a dramatic change? Where is the in-depth analysis of the value of various forms of sentencing?

Where is the mental health, drug and alcohol, behavioural and other professional support strategy that’s needed to get a better outcome from the court system. If that material exists, it certainly wasn’t referenced when the Attorney General Robert Clark made the announcement on Tuesday, April 16, this year. Right now the court system in Victoria is in turmoil as a result of changes to the funding of Legal Aid and the Duty Lawyer process and this latest move to stop suspended sentencing can only make matters worse. Did Magistrate Raleigh get it wrong? Maybe. Is the State Government getting it’s approach to the justice system wrong? Almost certainly!