Published: 03 October 2017

Ruth Forrest says judges and courts must have power to balance crime with punishment

TOUGH on crime or a political stunt to win votes?

With barely three months having passed since the Legislative Council rejected the Government’s bill to introduce mandatory sentences for serious sexual offences against children, the Government has given notice it wants MLCs to reconsider.

“If at first you do not succeed, try again” is a commendable trait, but given an election is imminent it looks more like a political stunt, designed to appeal to the fears that surround issue relating to children.

The issue is the suitability of mandatory sentences as part of our judicial system. The Government has not revealed any evidence to the Legislative Council that mandatory sentences give effect to the stated objectives. No new evidence or information to support the Government’s claim this legislative change is needed has been provided in the past three months.

It is insulting to suggest the Legislative Council was wrong in its assessment of the original Bill and did not properly scrutinise it. If the Government wants to be tough on crime, and I agree that it should, it must spend more time, energy and resources on prevention through investment in the reduction of poverty, improved education, child safety, housing and access to healthy food.

Members who opposed the Bill have consistently voiced concerns about the risk of unjust outcomes associated with mandatory sentencing. The cavalier use of children as pawns in this debate, playing on people’s fears, is appalling. It’s a low political act without substance or evidence.

Serious legislative decisions are not taken lightly.

Important decisions are taken seriously and all aspects of new legislation are fully scrutinised when presented to the Legislative Council, including the impact and possible consequences on victims and for perpetrators of these horrendous crimes. And yes, I was personally seriously challenged by the gravity of these crimes and went to great lengths to weigh up all sides of this question.

Mandatory sentencing can, and does, lead to unjust outcomes. Not for all, but for some. Those most likely to be victims of unjust outcomes of mandatory sentencing are those from marginalised groups, people who are often victims themselves. I do not condone the actions of those who harm our children.

It is fundamental to democracy that the courts should determine appropriate sentences after the Parliament creates the laws and sets the range of sentencing options.

It is not only false but nasty to suggest MPs do not care about the safety and welfare of our children. We need to resist this move to gutter politics.

I care deeply about the safety and welfare of our children. I always have and I always will. Children need, deserve and should be able to expect protection from harm. They are our future and require us to stand up on their behalf when they are too young and/or unable to do so for themselves.

People who commit crimes on children, particularly of a sexual nature, deserve to face the full force of the law.

The courts need a wide range of penalties that can be applied, particularly in cases of serious sexual assault and the perpetrators should, and do face custodial sentences.

Courts must be supported and encouraged to impose appropriate penalties for these crimes but I stop short of dictating how or what these penalties should be in any given case. The separation of the legislature from the judiciary is fundamental.

Judges have years of experience and access to all the facts. It is their job to determine the appropriate sentence. We must not undermine public confidence in the judiciary.

We all want less crime, particularly serious crime. We all want to protect children and we all expect harsh penalties for those who sexually abuse our children. 

We need a robust, respected and resourced judiciary provided with a range of sentencing options, including lengthy custodial sentences, to enable courts to impose appropriate penalties.

Our focus must be prevention of harm, including sexual assault, to children.

Even with the best intentions we will not be likely to succeed in preventing all harm but this must be our objective. Let’s ensure we adequately resource preventative measures and protect our children as harm inflicted has lifelong impacts on a child and their family.

Political grandstanding has no role in this public policy. The cavalier use of children as pawns in this debate, playing on people’s fears, is appalling.

MLC Ruth Forrest is the Independent Member for Murchison.

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