FOR magistrates, judges and justices, jailing an offender is the last resort.
And rightfully so.
Even just a few weeks in custody can cause further harm to people’s mental health – many of whom already suffer psychological and psychiatric conditions – and it often serves no purpose in rehabilitation. Nor does it serve as much of a deterrent. Even if people were routinely jailed for decades for various crimes, they would still occur. Just look at the United States.
So why is the Bendigo public so keen to see the key thrown away for offenders, even those on relatively minor charges?
A final study by the Sentencing Advisory Council, released last week, may hold the answer.
It surveyed almost 1000 County Court jurors in Victoria who gave guilty verdicts to offenders, and asked them to give their sentence. These are members of the public have sat through the entire trial and heard evidence presented to the court.
The study found 62 per cent of jurors gave sentences more lenient than the judge – 12 months more lenient, in fact.
Jurors were far more likely to let offenders walk without a custodial sentence.
For violent offending, 71 per cent of jurors were more lenient than the judge.
The findings back up a similar oft-cited study of Tasmanian jurors in 2007 and 2009.
It shows when people have more access to information about a case, their view of the sentencing process changes dramatically. It broadens their view on the causes of crime and the sentencing tools available to judges.
Giving a lengthy jail sentence in Victoria is not something to be taken lightly, or suggested flippantly.
Victoria’s incarceration rate is the highest it has been since 1896. But does this mean we’re safer than we’ve ever been? You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone to support that proposition, even with the offence rate remaining relatively steady.
Filling our jails with even more people for longer periods, and building more jails, won’t make anyone safer as funding is diverted from preventative measures to punitive measures.
It’s a race to the bottom and no one wins – especially not our under-funded mental health services and those born into lives of chronic disadvantage.