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Is Australia’s sentencing too harsh?

"Sentencing in Australia has barely changed in more than a century."

Scandinavia. Land of the midnight sun, Vikings, and a surprisingly high number of heavy metal bands. But for all that angry music and those inhospitable, dark winters, the Scandinavians seem a happy enough bunch.

‘The Scandinavians have far less crime and one-third of our prison population,’ Alfred Deakin Professor and Chair in Law at Deakin Law School Professor Mirko Bagaric explains.

And Bagaric knows what he is talking about: he wrote his PhD thesis about sentencing law in Australia.

‘Sentencing in Australia has barely changed in more than a century,’ he says.

‘We are one of the most punitive countries in the developed world and are in the Dark Ages when it comes to sentencing.’

Bagaric believes sentencing is one of the most important areas of law due to the long-term effects of imprisonment, including a decrease in life expectancy and a 20-40 per cent reduction of lifetime earnings. Imprisonment also has a devastating impact on the families of inmates.

‘Sentencing shouldn’t be something politicians use as a political football to hunt votes.’

The Australian prison population at its highest ever, having grown 300 per cent since 1985. Housing each of those prisoners costs state governments $102 000 per year, which is a drain on state coffers Bagaric says isn’t necessary.

‘The community is punishing itself with the burgeoning costs of imprisoning people, many of whom aren’t violent or sexual offenders,’ he says.

‘The punishment shouldn’t be disproportionate to the crime committed. It’s ridiculous that often rapists get far less jail time than tax dodgers.

‘We need to imprison people we’re rightly scared of, not those we’re angry with because they cheated on their taxes or rorted the welfare system. That anger should not manifest in long jail terms.’

When it comes to preventing crime, scientific data has shown time and again that harsh penalties and general deterrence don’t work. Bagaric explains the death penalty doesn’t discourage crime, but ‘an increased perception in people’s minds that they will get caught’ does. ‘People don’t offend in police stations or courts, and it’s why speed cameras are so effective,’ he says.

‘Something close to the Scandinavian system is what we should emulate.’

Bagaric’s framework for a new sentencing scheme is that only serious sexual and violent offenders will go to prison, sometimes for longer than they currently do. Nearly all other offenders would be dealt with using other sanctions, including fines.

Bagaric says his main obligation as an academic is to ensure his research helps the community.

‘As an academic, the purpose of your research is ideally to identify an area of society not functioning as well as it might and to inject more clarity relating to that matter in the hope of improving outcomes for the community,’ Bagaric explains.

Bagaric has previously spoken to a number of current and former Attorneys General of a number and states and territories in the hope of bringing about “informed debate”, if not speedy change. This month he will meet two other Attorney-Generals, in the hope of doing the same.

‘I know I will have succeeded in my research when state and territories start closing prisons and re-direct that revenue to more education – which is the single most effective cure to criminal behaviour. As a community we need less people in jail and more in schools, TAFEs and universities. This would make as a safer, wealthier and more humane society.’ 

‘Ultimately, I look at my work through the eyes of the Australian taxpayer. It is privilege to research in the University sector. With that comes an obligation to the community. My ultimate point of reference is whether the community views my work as a good investment.   ‘The day the answer is no, it’s time for me to get another job.’

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