Australia ’s system for sentencing federal offenders should be overhauled to provide greater consistency, fairness and clarity, according to a major report by the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) brought in front of the federal Parliament.
ALRC President Professor David Weisbrot said there is compelling evidence of inconsistent treatment of federal offenders, as well as problems in the way the federal system meshes with the sentencing of states and territories.
“Most federal criminal matters are heard in state and territory courts. This means we have a situation where offenders who have committed the same crime can receive very different outcomes based solely on the state or territory in which they are sentenced. That’s clearly not fair,” said Prof Weisbrot.
“Australia ’s federal criminal justice system has expanded and evolved significantly in the past two decades. Having carefully considered the evidence, we have formed the view that the current system for sentencing federal offenders simply isn’t up to the task.”
The report, Same Crime, Same Time: Sentencing of Federal Offenders, includes a detailed analysis of over 25,000 fraud and drug cases handled by the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions between 2000 and 2004. The research — the first to look at federal sentencing outcomes — shows a significant disparity in both the type and the severity of outcomes for federal offenders across state and territory lines.
The report made 147 recommendations, including the introduction of a new Federal Sentencing Act to promote consistency, a database of federal sentences for use by judicial officers, and a ‘Sentence Indication Scheme’ to provide offenders with an indication of their sentence if they were to plead guilty, possibly avoiding costly court trials and distress to victims. The report also recommended the establishment of a federal parole authority and an office for the management of federal offenders.
Commissioner-in-charge of the inquiry, Brian Opeskin, said that one of the problems with current federal sentencing legislation was its complexity. “A clear and concise Federal Sentencing Act would eliminate confusion and ambiguity and lead to more consistent outcomes,” he said.
“Similarly, a database of federal sentences would make it easier for judges and magistrates to determine whether they are exercising their sentencing discretion in a way that is consistent with their colleagues.”
Opeskin said there was also a need to bring the system for parole decisions in line with arrangements in most states and territories. “Decisions about parole of federal offenders are currently made by a departmental officer on the basis of an offender’s paper file. It would be preferable for these decisions to be made by a federal parole authority involving broad community representation and the opportunity for the prisoner to be heard.
“An Office for the Management of Federal Offenders would ensure that administration of this increasingly complex system is adequately resourced, allowing better tracking of federal sentencing decisions and of offenders who serve their sentences in the states and territories.”
The ALRC held over 80 meetings with interested parties and received 98 written submissions, including 16 from federal offenders, during the two-year inquiry.