The state government's reluctance to exercise discretion in relation to driving offences in rural NSW is leading to high rates of imprisonment, according to Nicholas Cowdery QC.
Speaking at the Rural Issues Conference at the Law Society of NSW last Friday (28 October), Cowdery said the unavailability of community-based sentencing options in rural and remote NSW is exacerbating the rates of imprisonment, which are twice as high as those in metropolitan areas.
Cowdery relayed the findings of a 2007 Sentencing Council inquiry into the relationship between penalties arising from the failure to pay a driving-related fine and a person's ability to obtain or hold a valid driver's licence.
Cowdery said that Roads and Traffic Authority (RTA) charges and State Debt Recovery Office (SDRO) processes often meant people who fail to pay fines will end up losing their licence - and this, he said, is a significant disadvantage for people living in the country.
"The SDRO is a government institution without a heart which hasn't yet come across the word 'discretion' in the exercise of its powers," Cowdery said.
"If you don't pay a fine, you have your licence taken from you, and that can have a very serious impact on your ability to remain employed, maintain social and family connections, and lead a full life in remote and rural areas."
Cowdery added that the lack of community sentencing options that might otherwise be available creates a "double whammy" effect for country residents, and said the government's response to the Sentencing Council's recommendations was inadequate.
"[The government talks] about the implementation of new initiatives for the Department of Corrective Services (DCS), [yet] in this financial year the DCS has had $65 million taken out of its budget. So what new initiatives are we going to see implemented?" he asked.
"There wasn't much in the government response that gave us much hope that anything was going to change anytime soon. That response was in 2007. It's now 2011 and the problems are continuing."