NATIONAL child protection advocate Bravehearts has backed calls today by the Federal Government for mandatory sentencing of serious child sex offenders but said pre-sentence risk assessments for re-offending is a necessary inclusion requiring equal consideration in the sentencing equation.
Bravehearts Founder, Hetty Johnston AM, said the organisation’s focus was on offences that attract a maximum period of 10 years or more.
It is Bravehearts’ position that these offences are of a significant nature and as such must be subject to a mandatory term of imprisonment and more importantly, mandatory treatment and pre-release assessment.
“Bravehearts supports the introduction of mandatory minimum sentences for serious sex offences that attract a maximum period of 10 years or more, including an equal and parallel consideration and assessment of risk at the time of sentencing,” said Mrs Johnston.
“Minimum mandatory sentencing is needed because the judiciary must down sentences that reflect community expectations. But one size rarely fits all so the need to qualify the risk offenders pose to children must be a critical element in calculating sentencing.
“Ultimately, what we seek is that offenders stop offending and that dangerous sex offenders are not released into the community.
“In order to keep our communities, and in particular our children, safe and protected from harm, we need to find effective measures to protect our children against those offenders who are assessed as anything other than a low risk.
“The calls for mandatory sentencing is a response to community fears around the release of dangerous offenders into our communities. With communities becoming increasingly concerned about the sexual assault of children, it is time that our legislation and courts properly deal with risk as well as punishment.”
Mrs Johnston said a holistic approach was required which also ensured effective rehabilitation and support strategies were in place for when offenders were released back into the community.
“Unless these offenders can be unanimously assessed as posing a low risk by three recognised and qualified specialists, and that risk can be managed in the community, they should not be released,” she said.
Mrs Johnston conceded there were persuasive arguments on both sides of the debate but stressed that strict new laws for serious crimes would act as a deterrent for offenders and that arguments against mandatory sentencing could be overcome.
“Those opposed to the common calls and implementation of mandatory sentencing rightly point out that the impact on guilty pleas can result in lengthy trials and the re-traumatising of victims. Some victims and families may be reluctant to disclose if it means that a loved family member will be given a long sentence as most just want the offending to stop. The addition of risk assessment and focus on rehabilitation in the sentencing equation overcomes these objections,” she said.
“There’s also an argument that juries may be reluctant to find someone guilty if they think the sentence will be unjust. These suggested amendments likewise overcome this hurdle.
“The reality is that child sex offending is a compulsive, addictive behaviour that damages victims for life and these offences need to be considered with the utmost gravity.
“Unfortunately, judges are often restricted by precedence, and it’s not always their fault when inadequate sentences are handed down. That’s why the legislation must change to give the judiciary, the community and the victims some consistency as well as security.
“The system needs to respond to ensure that victims will speak out and that the outcomes from disclosure will meet both the goals of the criminal justice system – deterrence, rehabilitation, incapacitation or protecting a community by removing an offender from it and punishment – and also to promote rehabilitation and support victims.”
Bravehearts in 2012 successfully lobbied the Queensland Government to pass a bill enforcing a ‘two strikes’ approach for repeat child sex offenders. It applies to sex offenders who have previously been convicted of an offence that attracts a maximum sentence of life imprisonment and who have been released and who then commit another sexual offence that attracts a maximum sentence of life.
Bravehearts considered a number of key objectives in introducing mandatory sentences.
- To provide consistency and certainty in the sentencing process;
- To ensure dangerous sex offenders are not released into our communities;
- To provide transparency in the sentencing process; and
- To increase community confidence in the criminal justice system through providing a system that meets community expectations.