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Suspended Sentences: Abolition fueling a perfect storm in Victorian Corrections system

Suspended sentence abolition fuelling a perfect storm in the Victorian corrections system according to new research
New research released today by Catholic Social Services Victoria warns that the Victorian government’s move to abolish suspended sentences will have a debilitating effect on Victoria’s corrections system.
The report finds that community safety may well be compromised by the reforms, which will add an extra 5,500 people to Victoria’s corrections system each year, effectively doubling the number of people who receive community orders at a time when the system is under pressure from so many directions.
Speaking on the release of the study, The Perfect Storm: The Impacts of Abolishing Suspended Sentences in Victoria, Executive Director of Catholic Social Services Victoria Denis Fitzgerald said, “The outcome in terms of community safety will be the opposite of what the government hopes for.  Abolishing suspended sentences will exacerbate the many pressures that Victoria’s corrections system is already under.”
“We need a range of flexible and effective responses to offending, so that justice can be done and future offending avoided.  Suspended sentences have been shown to have lower rates of re-offending than either fines or imprisonment, and they must not be abolished.”
Study author Dr Karen Gelb, noted the significant costs to the community from the abolition of suspended sentences. “The additional cost to the taxpayer following the abolition of suspended sentences will be in excess of $50 million, and possibly much higher if offenders are instead sent to prison.”
There are particular concerns of the impacts on the Victorian corrections system’s ability to support effective rehabilitation of offenders.  Julie Edwards, CEO of statewide prisoner transitional services provider Jesuit Social Services said, “Criminal justice systems are most effective when they provide people with support to deal with the many issues that underlie their offending including mental illness, drug and alcohol issues, and a lack of education and employment.”
“The dramatic increases that will result from abolition of suspended sentences will overwhelm services that are already stretched to capacity. Over the past year we have already seen a 4.5% increase in the daily number of offenders on community orders but only a 2.5% increase in staff numbers. This is the type of situation in which reoffending rates will increase.”
Contact:  Denis Fitzgerald, Executive Director, Catholic Social Services Victoria, tel 0418 136 372
Catherine Neville, Jesuit Social Services, tel 0407 318 832

click for media coverage of the report:  

Listen 1 Denis Fitzgerald Introduction:

Lilsten 2 Launch of Report by Judge Liz Gaynor 

Listen 3  Response to Judge Gaynor by Liana Buchanan :

Listen 4 Closing remarks by Denis Fitzgerald :
Attached: Key facts, Background

Key Facts
  • It is estimated that approximately 5,500 wholly suspended sentences were imposed in 2011-12.
  • Once wholly suspended sentences are fully abolished these people will require alternative sentencing.
  • The vast majority of these 5,500 will likely be placed on a community correction order rather than in prison.
  • The impact on the community corrections system will be enormous: it will effectively double the number of people who receive a community order each year (5,550 from the Magistrates’ Court in 2011-12 and 128 people from the higher courts in 2010-11).
  • At 30 June 2013 compared to 30 June 2012 there had already been a 4.7% increase in the average daily number of offenders actively under community supervision but only a 2.5% increase in the total number of community corrections officers.
  • In 2011-12, the real net operating expenditure per Victorian offender on a community order was $25.96 per day, or over $9,000 per year ($9,475.40).
  • Some of the 5,500 suspended sentences are also likely to end up becoming prison sentences.
  • Over the past 12 years the Victorian prison population has increased by at total of 50.4%, almost half of this in the last four years. 
  • The male prison system has been operating at close to or above 95% of its operational capacity since May 2011 (Victorian Auditor-General, 2012, p. 7); as of November 2013, the system is running at 104% of capacity. 95% prison utilisation rate is the nationally-accepted limit for the safe and efficient operation of the prison system, allowing prison management to manage the rehabilitation, human rights and welfare of prisoners
  • At $97,000 per prisoner per year, the prison system exacts a significant financial cost – more than $500 million annually.

Background – The abolition of suspended sentences
  • Suspended sentences are near the top of the sentencing hierarchy, sitting below an immediate term of imprisonment. They provide a more serious punishment than a fine for first-time offenders while avoiding the negative effects of imprisonment
  • The Sentencing Advisory Council’s report on reoffending following sentencing in the Magistrates’ Court shows that there is a statistically significant reduction in the likelihood of reoffending following a wholly suspended sentence. For offenders who share similar offending histories, those who received a wholly suspended sentence were 8.4% less likely to reoffend than were those who received a fine (Sentencing Advisory Council, 2013, p. 22).
  • Limitations on the use of suspended sentences for serious offences began in 2006, with a restriction on the use of wholly suspended sentences to only those instances in which there were ‘exceptional circumstances’ for offences committed
  • The abolition of all suspended sentences began in 2010 with the removal of the use of either wholly or partially suspended sentences for ‘serious’ offences including offences causing death and serious injury, as well as sexual penetration offences and armed robbery.
  • The Coalition government extended these restrictions in 2011 by adding a list of ‘significant’ offences for which suspended sentences (either wholly or partially) could no longer be imposed. These included causing serious injury recklessly, arson offences, aggravated burglary and serious drug trafficking offences.
  • The final stages of the abolition of suspended sentences remain to take full effect. Under legislation passed by Parliament, the final abolition is being implemented in two stages: suspended sentences have first been abolished in the Supreme and County Courts for offences committed on or after 1 September 2013, and will subsequently be abolished from the Magistrates’ Court no later than 1 September 2014.

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