THE AUSTRALIAN Law Reform Commission (ALRC) has called for an overhaul of sentencing laws and procedures to reflect the expansion of the federal criminal justice system.
The call has coincided with the ALRC’s release of a discussion paper, Sentencing of Federal Offenders (DP 70). The paper contains 140 proposals for reform, which will be debated before a final report and recommendations are presented early next year.
The Commission has proposed four major structural changes, including the introduction of a dedicated federal sentencing act. ALRC president Professor David Weisbrot said such an act would provide a more logical structure for sentencing laws and be drafted in clearer terms than existing parts of the federal Crimes Act.
Weisbrot said the proposed changes were likely to be viewed as controversial, but were “logical responses” to the problems turned up by the Commission’s review of federal sentencing laws and procedures. He said the changes were necessary to “meet the significant new demands being placed on the federal criminal justice system”.
Other proposals include the expansion of the Federal Court’s role, creation of an office to manage federal offenders and liaise with state and territory authorities, and establishment of a Federal Parole Board.
Weisbrot said the expansion of the Federal Court’s role would provide for original jurisdiction for specified federal crimes and enable it to act as a national court of appeal in federal matters.
He said that in the past federal offences were largely limited to crimes such as drug importation and tax or welfare fraud. “But the system has grown — the reach of federal criminal law is now much broader, including such new offences as terrorism, illegal fishing, people smuggling, child sex tourism and sexual slavery.”
Its original small scale meant the federal system had traditionally “piggy-backed” on the state and territory judicial and correctional systems, Weisbrot said, which meant there was no consistency in the punishment of federal crimes across the states and territories.
The ALRC has held more than 60 meetings around Australia with a range of interested parties and received over 50 written submissions since starting its inquiry in July 2004.
“Judges and magistrates consistently emphasised that they wanted a wider range of federal sentencing options to deal with the circumstances of each case,” commissioner in charge of the inquiry, Brian Opeskin said.
“Some options that are available in state and territory jurisdictions — such as the rehabilitation programs offered through state drug courts — are simply not available to federal offenders. Other options such as periodic or home detention are only available to some federal offenders, depending on where the sentencing takes place. That’s clearly not fair.”
He said a major change proposed by the ALRC would give the Federal Court a bigger criminal caseload. “We’ve also floated the idea of taking appellate jurisdiction for federal criminal matters away from state courts of criminal appeal and giving it to the Full Court of the Federal Court.”
Other significant proposals in the discussion paper include facilitating the use of victim impact statements and pre-sentence reports in sentencing; introducing a sentence indication scheme; and encouraging specialisation within the state and territory courts to familiarise judges and magistrates with complex federal laws and procedures.