Major reform of criminal sentencing under debate

GIVING juries too much power over the sentencing of criminals could have devastating consequences for some of society’s most marginalised members, a Ballarat criminology academic has warned.

It comes after the State Labor opposition announced a plan that would see juries have a say in sentencing.

Under Labor’s proposal, judges would be required to consult with a jury ahead of delivering a sentence to hear their views on an appropriate sentence.

Opposition leader Daniel Andrews said a State Labor government would legislate to allow the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and the Chief Judge of the County Court to trial the new approach in their courts for a period of 12 months.

The initiative would apply to serious indictable offences and while judges would not be required to concur with the jury’s view, they would be required to reveal it in the sentencing judgment, along with the reasons for disagreement.

“While judges must retain enough discretion to avoid serious injustice, it’s also important that the sentences they hand down are mindful of community expectations,” Mr Andrews said.

But University of Ballarat criminology and history academic Jacqueline Wilson has warned against “knee-jerk policy sentencing reactions”.

Unlike judges, she said, juries often acted on emotion and prejudice.

She said they did not always make good decisions.

“We need to be careful we don’t just go for popular sentencing policies,” Dr Wilson said.

“We’ve had tragic circumstances in America where people have been sentenced and then found to be innocent through DNA.

“The best example in Australia is Lindy Chamberlain. Only the judge remained rational. The Australian public would have had her hanged at the time.”

Dr Wilson said too often it was the poor, mentally ill and addicted who wound up sentenced to long periods of time in the prison system, while white-collar criminals rarely received long sentences.

“When juries meet they bring their own beliefs and values,” Dr Wilson said.

“Often there’s an element of racism there or there’s an element of sexism. People can be very judgmental and that’s why we have judges.”


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