Wednesday, 24 November 2021
Crimes Amendment (Remissions of Sentences) Bill 2021
Labor supports the Crimes Amendment (Remissions of Sentences) Bill 2021. It would amend the Commonwealth's Crimes Act. For starters, it would repeal section 19AA of the Crimes Act, which applies remissions granted under state or territory laws to head sentences for Commonwealth offences. For clarity, a remission is a reduction in the term of a prison sentence. By way of example, a state or territory law may provide that a prisoner's head sentence can or should be reduced if the person's time in prison is harsher than had been anticipated at the time of sentencing, such as where a person is detained in his or her cell for longer than usual because of a fire or other emergency situation, or because of an industrial dispute. More recently, the requirements for lockdowns as a consequence of COVID-19 have resulted in prisoners detained in cells for long periods without the usual access to exercise yards and other activities outside their cells. The upshot of section 19AA in the Crimes Act is that any such reduction under a state or territory law is applied automatically to the head sentences of individuals who have been convicted of Commonwealth offences. The laws in the states and territories vary in this area. That means that individuals who are handed the same sentence in different states may ultimately end up having a different term of imprisonment depending on the state or territory in which he or she is sentenced.
The other aspects of section 19AA of the Crimes Act—subsections (2) and (3)—would also be repealed. Subsection 19AA(2) applies any state or territory law crediting clean street time as a reduction of a federal offender's sentence, in the same way as clean street time would apply to reduce the sentence of a state or territory offender in the same jurisdiction. Subsection 19AA(3) ensures that clean street time is taken into account where an offender breaches their parole in a state or territory that does not provide for reductions in sentences based on clean street time. Clean street time is the period between when an offender is released on parole up to the time when their parole order is revoked because of noncompliance with an order. In most states or territories clean street time is taken into account in determining consequences for an offender who has breached his or her parole order. The bill would replace subsections 19AA(2) and (3) with a new subsection, in a different part of the Crimes Act. The upshot of these amendments would be that courts could still consider clean street time when dealing with federal offenders who have breached parole conditions, but state and territory laws in relation to clean street time would no longer automatically apply to federal offenders.
As a number of those opposite have noted in the debate, this bill was prompted by some recent high-profile examples of federal offenders being granted emergency management days in Victoria with the effect that their sentences were substantially reduced. It is disappointing, but perhaps not surprising, that some in the Morrison government have sought to politicise this bill by pretending that emergency management days are a new thing. As I've already mentioned, under Victoria's Corrections Act, the corrections commissioner may reduce a prisoner's sentence if the individual demonstrates good behaviour while suffering disruption or deprivation during an industrial dispute, an emergency or other circumstances of a special or unforeseen nature.
These reductions are referred to as emergency management days, and they are not new. The current Victorian regime, in relation to emergency management days, was introduced in 1992. Every Commonwealth government, including the current government, has been aware of those arrangements ever since. So it's a bit rich and more than a little concerning that those opposite feign surprise over the fact that emergency management days have been applied by the Victorian corrections commissioner in recent times. Australians are entitled to expect their federal government to be on top of these matters.
This bill was the subject of inquiry by the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee. The primary concern raised by submitters was that the measures in the bill would apply retrospectively, with the effect that reductions in sentences that had been already applied under Victorian law, in particular, would be removed by the bill. In response to that concern, the Attorney-General's Department submitted that remissions and reductions are not an entitlement and it is not unreasonable to expect that changes may be made, from time to time, to discretionary benefits such as these, while also noting that the changes in the bill would not impose any additional punishments or change the sentence imposed by the sentencing court.
Labor understands and takes seriously the concerns raised by submitters about this aspect of the bill. However, on balance, we do not think those concerns outweigh the clear advantages associated with ensuring greater certainty and consistency when it comes to the length of federal sentences and the interests of community safety.