Inconsistent sentencing is a real issue and affects the reputation of all levels of court, Victoria’s Chief Magistrate Ian Gray says.
But Mr Gray – who has sat in the top job for more than 10 years – said claims the state’s magistrates were soft on criminals were “glib and superficial”.
Mr Gray spoke with the Bendigo Advertiser when he visited the region this week.
Part of the chief’s job is travelling around to visit all of Victoria’s magistrates courts.Mr Gray sat on the bench in Bendigo on Thursday and then in Castlemaine yesterday.
A common public complaint about Bendigo magistrates is that they are too lenient and Mr Gray admitted consistency was a real issue for all of Victoria’s courts.
“I think the reputation of the courts do suffer somewhat because there isn’t quite enough consistency,” he said.
“Sentencing can be criticised and undoubtedly some sentences handed down by courts are lenient and are appealed because they are too lenient. But that’s normally at the higher court levels and that’s normally where the critique is.”
Mr Gray said it was important for magistrates to keep their decisions in line with community expectations, but they couldn’t let personal feelings creep in.
“I think we all have things we regard as intolerable individually which some others might regard as bad but not quite so intolerable,” he said.
“There’s degrees of reaction but we have to temper our personal reaction to achieve a reasonable, balanced outcome.
“Where something calls for absolute condemnation, and the Facebook one here this week was one that called for powerful condemnation, that’s what should happen.”
Mr Gray referred to the Josh Turner case in the Bendigo Magistrates Court this week, where Turner was given a six-month suspended sentence for setting up a sexually degrading and offensive Facebook page.
“I think it was a very good decision, I think it was a well-expressed decision and I think this is an area where it’s new and people do need to understand that offences committed in this way are very, very serious and the implications for victims can be serious,” he said.
But Mr Gray said magistrates also had to work within the sentencing law and, as was the case in the Turner matter, other sentencing considerations must be taken into account.
“The sentencing law talks about punishment, deterrence, rehabilitation, holding people to account and taking into account the effects on victims,” he said.
“Most cases that come into the Magistrates Court are not so serious they call for imprisonment. A number do and those people go to jail. The jails in this state are utterly full, more than full.
“I just think it’s completely wrong to suggest there are people who aren’t going to jail when they should be.”
Mr Gray said there was always room for debate around sentencing but magistrates did their best to get the balance right.
“In most cases jail sentences won’t be necessary and it’s not the right option.
“So they are looking at options which are below jail, which involve community corrections orders and financial penalties and suspended sentences and combinations of those.
“Magistrates like to craft sentences which bring together a range of elements to achieve a range of purposes. That’s what they do, that’s the skill, that’s the experience and that’s where the wisdom lies.
“What’s the real benefit to society in sentencing? It’s changing behaviour. It’s reducing the risk of offending. It’s protecting the community in the end.
“I think the critique of soft sentencing is superficial. I don’t think it’s valid.”