I refer to the Herald Sun article: “Slap for lenient judges”.
The article suggests that the number of successful appeals brought by the Director of Public Prosecutions (the DPP) against sentences shows that County Court judges are too lenient. This is inaccurate.
County Court judges sentence offenders daily for serious criminal offences. Over 1600 sentences were handed down last year, but only 1% were increased by the Court of Appeal. This was the same for the year prior to this. The trend continues this year.
The justice system is designed to be self-correcting. Independent review occurs first by the DPP, and should the DPP appeal, then by the appellate judges. This means that where a significant sentencing mistake is made, it is detected and corrected – justice is done.
By way of example, of the 1600 or so sentences last year, the DPP applied to have the sentence increased in 22 matters. The Court of Appeal agreed and increased the sentence only 13 times.
Just because a tiny number of sentences have been found to be overly lenient, does not mean that sentences across the board are too low.
Overwhelmingly, judges are getting it right.
The article also suggests that judges are reluctant to be informed by the community’s views on sentencing. This is not true.
The law requires sentencing judges to take into account informed community values. This allows our justice system to respond, over time, to evolving community concerns.
Judges are engaging with the community every day in the court room. They hear from people from all walks of life, almost inevitably at a time of crisis. These experiences inform the sentencing process.
Fair and informed criticism is an important part of our democratic society. However, more needs to be done to ensure that the public debate occurs in an informed context. This requires reference to the number of times that courts rightly impose significant and appropriate terms of imprisonment for serious crimes, and to what a judge is required to consider when sentencing and why.
I recognise there is a need to continually improve the Court’s engagement with the community. The Court will continue to focus on this. For example, we are participating in public forums, introducing new interactive resources for schools and are improving our website.
The Court is always open to new ways to be better informed about changing community attitudes.
Chief Judge of the County Court
* This editorial has been submitted to the Herald Sun for publication.