Senator FIFIELD (Victoria) (9.59 p.m.)-I should indicate at this point that this will be a change of pace and tone. If there were ever two words that should never be combined in the same sentence they are ‘parole’ and ‘murderer’-unless, that is, these nouns are modified by the verb ‘denied’. The idea that convicted killers should be released from prison before their time is both obscene and absurd. Such misplaced leniency is an insult to the families of their past victims and it is an injury to the future victims who are likely to suffer from new acts of thuggery.
The figures speak for themselves. Sixty-four per cent of paroled inmates will be found guilty of a new offence within two years of leaving prison. Almost half of Victoria’s convicted killers and 51 per cent of the state’s sex offenders will commit fresh criminal acts within seven years of their discharge. But statistics, however grim, can only tell you so much. Above all else, this is about people. This is a human story of innocent Victorians brutalised by convicted criminals who should never have seen the outside of a prison cell.
The toll of tragedy includes Colleen and Laura Irwin, the 20-something sisters who were raped and killed in January 2006 by William John Watkins. The truly awful thing about the Irwin murders is that, with a bit of judicial common sense, they need never have happened. Watkins had a lengthy record of violent offences that included convictions for sexual assault and bashing a blind, elderly woman. He was clearly a ticking crime bomb, a rampage waiting to happen. Watkins was already serving time when he was prosecuted in 2000 for additional acts of criminal violence. He was found guilty, but for reasons that defy comprehension the court allowed him to serve his new jail sentences concurrently. And so this hoodlum’s already inadequate stint behind bars was extended by a mere 90 days. William Watkins was released from prison in an act of official folly for which two innocent young women paid the ultimate price. In May 2004, he moved into the same apartment building where the Irwin sisters lived. Eighteen months later, the girls were dead.
Then there is Michael Vincent Lane, who in 2003 was convicted of strangling his mother to death. But, like William Watkins, Lane should never have been in a position to touch a hair on anyone’s head. At the time he committed this killing, he was enjoying the unjustified freedom of a parole from a previous jail term for murder. And earlier this year, another killer was prematurely set free from his cell. The trial judge handed down a life sentence to Anthony Arthur Stone for the rape, mutilation and stabbing death of an intellectually disabled woman. But in the doublespeak of the Victorian court system, life in prison means anything but. Stone was granted parole at the earliest possible date and today he walks our streets a free man.
The Watkins, Lane and Stone cases are emblematic of a justice system that has lost its way. Our courts appear to be more concerned about the privileges of the guilty than the protection of the innocent. How else can you explain why, just a week or so ago, four young thugs escaped jail time for an unprovoked act of savage, racist violence? How else can you explain why four young hooligans received slap-on-the-wrist sentences for the drug-fuelled bashing of a refugee that they committed in Melton, Victoria?
Seventeen-year-old Sudanese migrant Ajang Gor was minding his own business on his way home from work when he was set upon by a band of barbarians who struck him with a bottle while hurling racist abuse at him. These brutes called Mr Gor a ‘black dog’ as they beat him into unconsciousness. They then stole his mobile phone and left him battered and bloodied by the side of the road. And, even after their arrest, these bullies continued with their racist rant, saying that this innocent teenage refugee ‘was a bitch and shouldn’t be in this country’.
The assault on Mr Gor was an outrageous act of bigotry and brutality. But then the Victorian County Court added insult to Mr. Gor’s injury by handing down sentences that surely did not fit the crime. Now, it must be conceded that the trial judge talked a good game. In his sentencing statement His Honour declared:
This type of violent attack on a defenceless young man is deplorable and must be discouraged.
But it turns out that in this case talk was cheap. In fact, it could be said that the trial judge talked the talk but did not walk the walk. For all practical intents and purposes, the racist thugs who beat senseless a helpless teenager got off scot-free-or close to it. His Honour felt that prison terms were not appropriate for such ‘immature offenders’. And so, despite the fact that one of these individuals had prior convictions for violence, they walked out of the courtroom with a suspended sentence and community service orders.
But, if these hoodlums were mature enough to beat Ajang Gor to a pulp, they were mature enough to pay an appropriate price for their actions. If they were mature enough to do the crime, they should have been deemed mature enough to serve an appropriate sentence. I would like to ask His Honour how he reconciles his desire to ‘discourage’ thuggish violence with such indulgent punishment. The assailants of Ajang Gor did not appear particularly discouraged by their experiences with the criminal justice system. In fact, they seemed outright triumphant. The Herald Sun described their post-trial demeanour thus:
Four men who savagely bashed and racially abused a Sudanese teenager laughed and joked as they walked free from court today … The four men laughed and shook hands with each other and one of them said “let’s go to the pub to celebrate.”
If this is what passes for deterrence in the Victorian court system today then we are all in trouble. Lenient sentencing and lax parole policies have transformed Victorian prisons into revolving door holding pens that release far too many predators far too soon. And this massive policy failure is the direct responsibility of those who write our laws and appoint our judges.
The most sacred responsibility, surely, of government is to provide for the safety of its citizens. But Premier John Brumby and Attorney-General Rob Hulls have proven derelict in their duty towards even the most vulnerable members of our society. The Premier’s own Sentencing Advisory Council confirmed that not even half of our state’s child rapists ever see the inside of a prison cell. The Victorian Labor government has abandoned the best of us to the none-too-tender-mercies of the worst of us.
Director of Public Prosecutions Jeremy Rapke QC recently went on the record to express his dismay over this ‘softly-softly’ approach to crime and punishment. There are too many Victorian judges who excuse the inexcusable by handing down indulgent sentences which, as Rapke rightly says, ‘devalue’ the gravity of serious offences. The primary purpose of our criminal justice system is to keep the lawless from preying on the lawful and, if an overly permissive judiciary fails to ensure our protection, then parliament is morally obligated to fill that breach of trust.
But such deliverance will not come from a Labor government that has been stacking the Victorian court with powder puff judges since 1999. Victoria is in dire need of ‘truth in sentencing’ legislation that will abolish parole for violent offences and impose lengthy mandatory minimum prison terms for heinous crimes. With such laws in place, for the first time in a long time, villains would be forced to take their crimes as seriously as their victims do.