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Mandatory minimum sentences and populist criminal justice policy do not work – here’s why

Kate Fitz-Gibbon and James Roffee write in The Conversation (19.4.17) that, at a time when many Australian jurisdictions are imprisoning more people than ever, any policies that increase prisoner numbers must be seriously reconsidered.

‘The Victorian Liberal Party recently announced that, if elected in November 2018, it would introduce mandatory minimum sentences for repeat violent offenders as part of its crackdown on crime.

‘Heralded as a “two-strike” approach, the proposal applies specifically to repeat offenders and 11 violent crimes, including murder, rape and armed robbery. Shadow Attorney-General John Pesutto claimed the proposed new sentencing laws were “unprecedented” in Victoria and “will be certainly among the toughest measures that anyone has sought to introduce in our criminal justice system”.

‘Although obviously intended to improve community safety, mandatory minimum sentencing policies run counter to the significant body of evidence indicating that this approach to sentencing is costly, unlikely to improve public safety nor effective in deterring future offending. Despite this, such political promises are neither new nor unique to Victoria.

‘Mandatory maximum and minimum sentencing policies have been introduced to varying degrees across other Australian states and territories. Western Australia, the Northern Territory, Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria have each introduced minimum terms of imprisonment for a variety of different offences. At the Commonwealth level, the Migration Act imposes mandatory minimum terms of imprisonment for aggravated people-smuggling offences.

‘The widespread uptake of such policies should not, however, be considered an indicator of their success in practice. Successive reviews and inquiries have revealed that mandatory sentences fail to achieve their stated aims and have unintended consequences in practice, particularly for marginalised and diverse communities.’

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