Sentencing option on charity donations must be restored

IT may be an unintended consequence of reforms to sentencing that magistrates no longer have the power to compel offenders to donate money to charities as part of good behaviour bonds but it is one which needs to be fixed.

Victorian Supreme Court Justice John Dixon yesterday ruled a magistrate erred when he required an offender to make payment to St Vincent de Paul as a condition of his adjourned undertaking because such a condition was not within his powers. His ruling came after the City of Melbourne successfully challenged the long-running practice.

Surely the change isn’t due to changing views of the community. Surely it is not because the courts or the government believes charities should be able to fend for themselves and surely it is not because it doesn’t send the right message to offenders.

This simple method of penalty has the rare sense of flow-on benefits to the community that other sentencing provisions lack. The flexibility it provides for magistrates makes it attractive in cases where offending is at the lower end seriousness.

It is proven to be effective on a number of levels.

As public interest organisation Pilch director Juanita Pope explained the decision had significant consequences for charities: “We would urge parliament to take action to restore this historic sentencing option and allow offenders to contribute to the community through charitable giving as part of an adjourned undertaking. 

“For charities it makes a huge difference. Potentially millions of dollars are distributed to charities in this way every year. It is a very common sentencing practice.”

Simply, it seems, the provision has been misinterpreted in the past or omitted in revisions of legislation.

Either way, it’s just not right and must be amended.

Quite directly, it is often the simple methods of sentencing which are most effective. 

The ability to impose donations as a form of penalty must be restored by the government, and quickly, for the benefit of magistrates, charities and, most importantly, the community.

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