Thank you Acting President.
This motion that I am introducing (on the problems that are yet again compromising the enforcement of minimum jail sentences for assaults on emergency workers) is reasonably lengthy in content. However, it is quite straight forward in terms of the intent.
Fundamentally, its purpose is to prompt a discussion in this place about (and to ultimately pave the way for a solution to) the wholly inadequate punishments that continue to be applied in Victorian courts to the perpetrators of the terrible, ongoing acts of violence against the likes of our State’s police officers, paramedics, firefighters, SES and youth justice custodial workers, and hospital staff providing emergency treatment.
Following legislative changes in both 2014 and 2018, from both Coalition and Labor governments, Victoria is supposed to have a regime under which it is almost always compulsory for offenders to be gaoled for at least six months where they are convicted of committing such an attack. In fact, to paraphrase from a 20 September 2018 Government media release, last year’s changes were meant to do each of the following things:
- crack down on people who attack and injure emergency workers by ensuring they are given a custodial sentence;
- further limit the use of community correction orders;
- compel courts to impose a custodial sentence and leave them unable to sentence offenders to a non-custodial outcome, even after determining that special reasons apply;
- provide only a very narrow exception for cases involving offenders with a mental impairment; and
- send the strongest possible message that it is unacceptable to assault and injure such workers and, if you do, you can expect to go to gaol.
Given there has been this longstanding agreement across the political divide in Victoria about the need for strong and uncompromising punishments against anyone assaulting emergency workers, my motion is not intended to revive old debates about the policy itself. Rather, it is focused on why and how a widely agreed and accepted policy is not even coming close to being enforced – and hasn’t been for many years – and what we need to do as a consequence.
Now, I imagine there will be some in this debate (particularly from the Government) who might be keen to draw distinctions between the concepts of mandatory and statutory minimum sentencing. I imagine there may also be some who might say something to the effect that they can’t do much more in this area until there is a conclusion to the DPP appeal in the recent case of James Haberfield.
However, that reaction would misunderstand the extensive history of cases of offenders avoiding mandatory sentences that goes well beyond just Haberfield alone. Not to mention the community outrage at the leniency of the punishments consistently applied to these offenders.
Frankly, it would also seem to run counter to many public comments made by the Premier himself – including, for example, on 22 May 2018, when he said that: “If you attack and injure an emergency services worker, jail will mean jail; it’s as simple as that”; and “(for) anyone who wants to avoid going to jail it’s very simple – don’t attack and injure a paramedic or a police officer or a staff member at a youth justice facility or prison.”
Through this motion, Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party is not asking that appeal processes be ignored or disrespected or that another change in law specifically be made as soon as this afternoon.
What we are doing is giving all sides of this Parliament the opportunity to make it very clear if they agree that these sentencing provisions (in their current form in the Sentencing Act 1991 and Crimes Act 1958) are still not working as intended.
From there, we are also asking them to indicate whether they accept that consideration urgently needs to be given to strengthening these provisions whatever the outcome might ultimately be of the appeal in the Haberfield case. Including to a genuine mandatory minimum sentencing regime that actually works.
In doing so, we hope to give a voice to the many thousands of interested Victorians who are keen to know which of the State’s politicians want judicial decisions in cases like these to be more in line with community expectations – and which of the State’s politicians are much less interested in tackling this fundamental problem.
Among those thousands of Victorians, I include the leaders of the State’s Police Association and Ambulance Union who I believe are quite rightly pleading with us at this critical time to reinforce the message as vociferously as we can from Spring Street that no attack on a Victorian emergency worker should ever be tolerated.
Indeed, it would profoundly disappoint me if there was a single Member here who didn’t support serious penalties always being applied to those convicted of assaulting emergency workers.
There is simply no credible reason that such attacks should be excused – over and over again – by way of something less than a mandatory minimum jail sentence.
Yet not only does there appear to have been little slowdown in the rate of these incidents but – remarkably – the State’s courts are frequently thwarting community expectations in relation to them. And, at least from the outside, there is a mounting perception they are affording less recognition and rights to victims of crime than those who are committing the crimes against them.
I have already cited the Haberfield case a few times. This was a case in which a 22 year-old was not even sent to jail at all after choosing to consume a succession of party drugs and then violently twisting and placing a female paramedic in a headlock, and repeatedly punching her and a colleague (and pinning them in the back of an ambulance), all for simply trying to treat him.
However, mainly for the benefit of those who aren’t aware how pervasive these assaults are, let me also cite a few of the other cases just in the past year alone in which people convicted for perpetrating serious violence against emergency workers have likewise not attracted a mandatory minimum sentence.
- Jade Harrison, who rammed a police car and also very nearly ran over innocent bystanders (all whilst being on bail and driving unlicensed) and yet only received a community corrections order and less than six months back in gaol;
- Orion Harding, who, while heavily intoxicated, violently attacked two paramedics then actively resisted arrest – but received a sentence of community work on a corrections order and a $500 fine;
- Abdul Albulushi, who was involved in two road rage incidents before attempting to steal a policeman’s gun and then biting another officer but who received less than six months in gaol; and
- Glenn Main, who received a $5,000 fine after repeatedly bashing a police officer in a pub and then resisting arrest.
In the interests of time, I will avoid referring to a variety of other such incidents or any of the many cases currently gradually making their way through the judicial system. Nor to the frequent attacks, in particular, on custodial workers in the Malmsbury and Parkville Youth Justice Centres – including another wave of them at Malmsbury just in recent weeks.
Instead, I repeat that none of those offenders who I just mentioned received the minimum sentence that is supposed to be mandatory in each of these situations. None. Not one of them.
All of that, of course, is alarming enough – but, regrettably, it also leads to many further problems. Including a significant weakening of any deterrent value for others potentially inclined to engage in similar behaviour in the future.
In such an environment, should it be any wonder that there were more than 2,300 assaults on Victoria Police officers last year according to The Police Association Victoria? In turn, the Victorian Ambulance Union estimates that an average of up to 13 paramedics daily (that’s close to 5,000 annually) are physically or verbally assaulted on the job.
Given all of this background, and in my Party’s view at least, there is little option for us as MPs but to critically ask ourselves why actions so repugnant have become so commonplace?
I believe, as part of that, we should closely consider the idea of funding detailed research to better identify the reasons for these assaults – and what can be developed in the way of primary prevention and early intervention in an attempt to reduce at least some of this offending in the future.
All of this also leads to other broader questions that we should all contemplate. Namely: when something is going so wrong in the practical administration of a very clear policy principle through our justice system, what is our job if it is not to step in and correct it? Indeed, what does it say about us as a society, and a Parliament, if we can’t even protect (in their own moment of need) those whose collective job it is to protect all of us, every minute of every day, from injury and harm?
For our part, the major concerns of our Party lie with the ‘special reasons’ provisions in the Sentencing Act. It has surely been borne out enough times (and on enough different points of law in defence arguments) that these exemptions still remain too wide and subjective.
Equally, we feel some discomfort about the number of cases not only in this field, but throughout the Victorian justice system, in which people seem to be all too easily escaping the full consequences for their actions by relying on what appear to be questionable mental impairment defences.
We are also troubled by some of the practical implications for mandatory sentencing of the impact of plea bargaining – especially where charges are downgraded to make them potentially easier to prove.
All of that said, we are obviously happy to consult and/or compromise with anyone here if it will result in meaningful improvements that can broadly be agreed upon.
Several months ago (and well before the Haberfield decision), we questioned the Police Minister about why the minimum mandatory sentencing principle was not being reflected in court judgements. We are now even more concerned than we were then.
And, in fact, even if we go to the Haberfield case alone, then it actually already provides further, demonstrable reinforcement to us as to why additional legislative reforms are now required.
Sadly, I don’t think you could get a clearer indication that there’s a problem with the current laws when you have the Premier and the Chief Magistrate at near-complete odds in their public statements as to whether the correct judicial decision was reached in Haberfield’s case.
It is worth reflecting on the point that in late August, at the time of Haberfield’s sentencing, the Chief Magistrate Peter Lauritsen said that, irrespective of any decision to appeal, it was clear that Magistrate Zebrowski applied the law as he saw it to the facts in order to reach the sentence he imposed. He also said – and I quote – “it would have been wrong for him to do otherwise”.
In such circumstances, it’s difficult to have any confidence that similar decisions won’t be made again. That is regardless of whatever the outcome of the appeal in the Haberfield case might be. There continues to be spacious wriggle room for discretionary decisions to be made on a range of fronts in relation to the current laws. Multiple avenues can therefore be used to prevent mandatory minimum sentences from being applied.
That state of affairs is unacceptable.
In closing, I will restate my wish that all of us here come together in a non-partisan way to express our concern at the continued repudiation of the very clear, and surely unmistakable, expectations of the Parliament and broader community in relation to this area of sentencing. It remains an issue that’s too important to let the normal political divisions come between us – and it’s one that we need to collaboratively and proactively address and resolve.
Certainly, in the case of Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party, we want to send the unequivocal message to this State’s emergency workers (and want it to be heard far and wide) that we salute your bravery, courage and selflessness in looking after Victorians every day that you are at work. We support and admire you. And, when it comes specifically to those of you who have been assaulted (and who deserve to see those who attacked you genuinely brought to justice), we unashamedly take your side.
I commend the motion to the House.