Monday, 15 June 2020
Crimes Legislation Amendment (Sexual Crimes Against Children and Community Protection Measures) Bill 2019; Second Reading
Prior to question time, I was speaking in support of the Crimes Legislation Amendment (Sexual Crimes Against Children and Community Protection Measures) Bill 2019. I had outlined some of my concerns about the statistics surrounding abuse towards children and the manner in which it could or could not be held. I had detailed some statistics from the Australian Institute for Health and Welfare and I'd given some examples in relation to how this plays out in a very real sense.
Last year, the Australian Federal Police received almost 18,000 reports of child exploitation involving children or Australian child sex offenders. This is a doubling of what we saw the previous year, and it shows why it's particularly important that this behaviour is not tolerated. It's also why the Morrison government is introducing the this bill. What the bill strives to do is strengthen Commonwealth laws in order to provide greater protection to the community through deterring and punishing child sex offenders. It seeks to do it using four key mechanisms. Firstly, there are new offences for grooming activities and for websites and online platforms designed to host child abuse material. Secondly, aggravated offences for the most horrific types of child abuse engaged while someone is outside of Australia will also be introduced. Thirdly, there will be presumptions against bail and presumptions for imprisonment, making it harder to be granted bail and more likely that child sex offenders will go to prison and stay there. Finally, the bill seeks to introduce mandatory minimum sentences for the most serious child sex offences and for those who are likely to be repeat offenders.
The bill implements recommendations from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse to protect vulnerable witnesses. This protection will allow a witness to automatically give evidence via a video recorded interview, rather than needing to seek leave from the court to do so. The bill will also prohibit cross-examination during committal hearings. A broad package of reforms has already been introduced by the coalition government to protect vulnerable Australian, but there is always the opportunity to do more. The bill complements tough new measures to stop child sex offenders from travelling overseas to abuse children, and it complements Carly's Law, which targets online predators who use the internet to prepare or plan to sexually abuse children. This was implemented in the Combatting Child Sexual Exploitation Legislation Amendment Bill 2019. The recommendations from the royal commission addressed in that legislation looked to improve the Commonwealth framework for offences related to issues such as overseas child sexual abuse, forced marriage, a failure to report sexual abuse and a failure to protect children from such abuse. It is critical that we stop any way that these criminals might be enabled.
We must send the message that this behaviour will not be tolerated and that the perpetrators will not get away with their actions. We must use all reasonable legislative mechanisms to tackle these abhorrent crimes. I should note that Labor's claim in relation to the inquiry into the Combatting Child Sexual Exploitation Legislation Amendment Bill 2019, that mandatory sentencing 'increases the incentive for defendants to fight charges', is of course entirely false, because we note that within a 12-month period of the Western Australian state Liberal government introducing mandatory sentencing provisions for assaults against police and other officers, there was in fact a 28 per cent drop in assaults against police. It's a sobering statistic to realise that, in 2018-19, 39 per cent of convicted Commonwealth child sex offenders did not spend a single day in prison. This is simply not acceptable. Similarly, from February 2014 to January 2019, a shocking 40 per cent of Commonwealth child sex offenders did not spend a single day in prison, and, during that period, only four offenders received a fine. This simply cannot continue.
Pursuant to the provisions of this bill, a sentence can only be suspended fully when the total sentence is three years or less. The bill introduces a presumption that the offender can only have their sentence of imprisonment fully suspended in exceptional circumstances. If the total sentence is above three years, a non-parole period must be set. The bill introduces a presumption for cumulative sentences, which increases the likelihood of an offender receiving a sentence of greater than three years because, on most occasions, sadly, offenders are charged with multiple offences. If a non-parole period is actually set, it can be as little as one day, but the Attorney-General would then have to decide to release the offender on parole, which puts the discretion back in the Commonwealth government's hands. Where a person receives a sentence of three years or less, the court can provide that the offender should spend a specified period of time in prison before being released on a recognised release order.
The community, and, most importantly, the victims and their families expect that we in this place will protect our most vulnerable. We must ensure that there are consequences for these offenders and that they are not given the opportunity to reoffend. This is not a pleasant topic. It's a topic that is often seen as taboo, and it's a topic that is not spoken about as often it should be, but, unless we speak up for those who need our protection, we will never shift the stigma attached to these crimes against children or these offences in general. It is time that we increase the awareness and work to protect children to give them the best opportunity in life. This bill does that. This bill is the Morrison government's attempt to tighten these laws, as they should be. I take this opportunity to commend the bill to the Senate and commend the Morrison government for its work in ensuring that we protect those who are most vulnerable, as we should.
As a servant to the people of Queensland and Australia, I don't serve just voters; I serve everyone who is a resident of Queensland and Australia and that especially includes those who don't vote because they're too young. I won't go over the statistics, the gory details, because they are horrific—other speakers have done this from both sides of the chamber—but I do serve the young. Why do I serve the young? Because the abuse of children is not only the most heinous crime; it is also the destruction of our nation's future.
As I see it, the child—especially the young child, up to about six—is the embodiment of our universe. The lovely eyes of a child and what is going on in the heart of that child is the ultimate expression of our universe. From zero to six are the critical years, according to Maria Montessori, who has done more work than anyone else ever on the development and behaviour of humans. She says that zero to six are the critical years for the development of intellect and character. And some mongrel comes in and steals that young child's development.
I need only look at yesterday and the day before when I was in the Hunter Valley with Stuart Bonds, and we were helping some people who were victims of adult corporate crimes, group crimes. Stuart and his wife, Sini, have a lovely daughter called Penny, and Penny is an absolute delight—eyes shining, heart pumping, asking questions. She's only 2½ but speaks like a four-year-old, like an adult in many ways—full sentences. I was just marvelling at that lovely little human—the embodiment of their universe, combined with the human spirit.
As Tom Peters, the renowned management expert—and I'll always remember it—said many years ago 'The height of our civilisation is the four-year-old.' They're developing, but they haven't been corrupted by a society yet. Children need to be protected. They're naive. More important than that, they are innocent. And they can be preyed upon. They're weak and vulnerable in many ways, despite that sparkle and that energy. When somebody molests a young child, they're doing enormous damage, lasting damage, terrible damage. They're not doing it just to the child because the child's pain plays out for the rest of his or her life. That is terrible. But then what happens to that pain is it sometimes gets transferred to other people when that child becomes an adult and so on—the handing down of that pain, a lifetime of pain with the cost of sorting out that person's problems sometimes later on that is borne by our society or by other individuals. And that is a huge cost to our society.
Every way we look at it, this bill must go forward. We know that sentences on paedophiles are not tough enough. We know that judges are being weak, and society is not dealing with this vital issue anywhere near adequately. We must have much more serious sentencing, because judges have shown they have been weak.
We've had questions about this bill. Senator Hanson and I have listened intensely to the Labor shadow minister, the shadow Attorney-General. He made some good points, provided us with some data. We then went to the Attorney-General and listened to him. He reassured us on those points, on the checks and balances in this bill. Because these are the worst of criminals, but they still need to be treated fairly and within the law.
This bill, as it is now, sends a powerful message to the scum of our society—the absolute scum and dregs of our society. We must be tough on those who hurt the weak, who hurt the vulnerable, who hurt our kids. Our kids are the future. Our kids deserve to be free from this scum. We are voting in favour of this bill, because of our kids. I commend the bill to the Senate.
I'm extraordinarily proud to be a member of the Morrison government that's tackling a host of problems for Australia. As the mother of three beautiful children, there is nothing closer to my heart than the care and safety of our precious children. There is nothing more abhorrent than sexual offences against children. That is why I'm especially gratified to be part of a team that's bringing long-awaited and important changes to protections for children against sexual predators.
Our government is resolute in its commitment to protect children from sexual abuse. For far too long these predators have received grossly inadequate sentences for acts of unspeakable depravity. That's why we're introducing the Crimes Legislation Amendment (Sexual Crimes Against Children and Community Protection Measures) Bill 2019. It is completely unacceptable that in the years 2018 to 2019, a staggering 39 per cent of the Commonwealth's convicted child sex offenders did not spend a single day in prison. And four received fines.
Last year, the AFP received almost 18,000 reports of child sex exploitation involving Australian children and child sex offenders. This number was near double from the previous year. It's time to send a clear message to perpetrators that their behaviour will not be tolerated. This bill will strengthen Commonwealth laws in order to provide greater protections to children by deterring and punishing child sex offenders. The bill has four pillars to achieve this. It contains new aggravated offences for the most horrific types of child abuse committed while someone is outside of Australia, including when a child is subjected to cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment. It introduces new offences related to grooming activities, which includes websites and platforms designed to host child abuse material. It implements a range of presumptions against bail and presumptions for imprisonment, and it introduces mandatory minimum sentences for the most serious child sex offences.
The Commonwealth has the power to create offences that criminalise conduct by our citizens whilst they are overseas, and the government is not afraid to use that power. We are providing to law enforcement officers the tools to prosecute child sexual predators, no matter where the offences occur. That is why the new Criminal Code contains offences that criminalise the sexual abuse of children by Australian citizens whilst overseas. We are targeting those predators who travel to other countries to prey on vulnerable children and commit abhorrent acts, so that even if they escape prosecution in the country they travel to, they will not escape justice at home.
The bill also provides for the prosecution of predators who commit child abuse through live streaming of these despicable acts in cases where the child is outside of Australia. It includes offences related to the grooming of children for sexual abuse outside of Australia. This is the unfortunate and sickening reality that we are addressing. I'm pleased that our government is tackling the safety of children, not just at home but overseas. I am proud that we are willing to take responsibility for abhorrent acts, even when committed by an Australian in another country. Simply put, it means it will be much more likely that child sex offenders will go to prison, that they will stay there longer and they will find it much more difficult to get bail.
The bill will also introduce mandatory minimum sentences for the most serious of child sex offences and for those who are repeat offenders. This will address the completely unacceptable situation where 39 per cent of convicted offenders did not spend a single day in jail. And there is more positive news. Vulnerable young witnesses will be protected during the justice process. They will automatically give evidence via a video recorded interview during committal hearings. Cross-examination during a committal hearing will not be permitted. This implements an important recommendation by the Royal Commission into the Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
You might ask why we need minimum mandatory sentences for these offences and the short answer is Australians expect it, the brave survivors of these unspeakable crimes deserve it, and our government is determined to protect our precious children. Too often the courts are imposing inadequate sentences for child sex offences and fail to punish, deter or rehabilitate offenders. This must not be permitted to continue. That is why mandatory minimum sentencing for the most serious child sex offenders and repeat offenders lies at the core of the reforms of this bill. Our government is not afraid to handle the tough issues while ensuring the legislation is fair.
There are important safeguards in the bill for teenagers caught up in or participating in sexting. When this bill came before the House previously, the opposition suggested that the government's reforms would see teenagers locked up for five years for sexting. This bill will not target adolescent flirtations over Snapchat, Facebook or other social media sites. This bill does not target that type of relationship between consenting adolescents.
Senator McKim interjecting—
I hear you, Senator McKim. As the mother of a soon-to-be teenage daughter, I kind of wish it did but it doesn't. It targets serious predators aiming to sexually exploit our vulnerable children. The mandatory minimum provisions do not target people under the age of 18. Young people will not be subject to mandatory imprisonment. Police and prosecutors also retain the discretion not to pursue an investigation and must ensure that any prosecution is in the public interest.
Our presumptions against bail measures are designed to further protect children from these predators charged with serious offences. It will apply to those offences that attract a mandatory minimum penalty. This is a presumption against bail. The bail authority will retain discretion to grant bail, where it may consider issues like the defendant's age and community safety. The courts will retain their important power to set non-parole periods for child sex offenders. They will retain the discretion to reduce mandatory minimum penalties by up to 25 per cent. This, importantly, will provide some flexibility to allow for cases involving cooperation with law enforcement and early guilty pleas. However, in the case of suspended sentences, where a conviction is recorded but no time served, there will be an important change. Suspended sentences will only be permitted where the total prison sentence is less than three years. Courts will have the discretion to fully suspend sentences only in truly exceptional circumstances. Importantly, if the total sentence is greater than three years, a non-parole period must be set.
This bill also introduces a presumption against bail for cumulative sentences where multiple charges apply. The bill increases the likelihood of an offender receiving a sentence of greater than three years, because on most occasions offenders are charged with multiple offences. In short, we've assured the courts still using judicial discretion while ensuring that the most serious offenders receive appropriately long sentences.
There is a new aggravated offences category. That's because we are disturbed by the emergence of alarming trends that see offenders inflicting severe violence on children, alongside sexual abuse. The vile behaviour serves to exploit the vulnerabilities of children which stem from their trust and reliance on adults. It's the exploitation of these vulnerabilities which makes this offending so abhorrent and—let's be truthful—so very upsetting. That's why the bill covers scenarios in which the sexual abuse includes cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment, or results in the death of a child. These measures, as well as increased maximum penalties for aggregated child sex offences, ensure that offenders are subject to increased prison times and that others are deterred from committing similar crimes.
The Morrison government is introducing grooming offences for third parties. Grooming refers to the preparatory stage of child sexual abuse, where an adult gains the trust of a child, or the trust of other people with influence in the child's life, with the purpose of sexually abusing a child. That's because predators don't just groom their victims; they can target and groom a parent, a teacher, a scout leader or a even a sibling, in a depraved attempt to gain access to a child. It will apply to cases where an Australian citizen travels to a foreign country and establishes a relationship with a director of an orphanage to gain access to victims. This would include predators that take advantage of the anonymity of the internet to develop relationships with people who may inadvertently assist the predator to sexually abuse a child. We learnt from the royal commission into child sexual abuse that parents were groomed without their knowledge by predators seeking access to their children. Importantly, new offences provide law enforcement agencies with the power to investigate online predators and travelling child sex offenders before any abuse occurs. The maximum penalty of a 15-year imprisonment will serve as a strong deterrent to those who intend to use grooming practices to sexually abuse children.
The Morrison government is also committed to tackling child abuse on the internet. There's been a distressing rise in the number of websites that function for the sole purpose of distributing child abuse material and encouraging discussions about child sexual abuse between its members. We've recognised that it's crucial to address the increasing role that technology plays in enabling the online exchange of child abuse material. The bill does this by introducing new offences targeting administrators and facilitators of websites and online platforms that provide access to child abuse material. It bolsters existing offences in the Criminal Code related to the production and sharing of child abuse material. It strengthens offences related to the administration, creation, development, alteration, maintenance, control, moderation, advertisement, sharing or promotion of child abuse material online. The term 'electronic service' is broadly defined, ensuring the bill remains relevant as technology evolves. It reaches to the dark web, and it provides a maximum term of imprisonment of 20 years. The offence is designed to ensure that the most serious, malicious and exploitative conduct is pursued through the courts.
In summary, the bill complements a broad package of reforms that the coalition has already introduced. They include the tough new measures to stop child sex offenders travelling overseas to abuse children; Carly's Law, which targets online predators who use the internet to prepare or plan to sexually abuse children; and the Combatting Child Sexual Exploitation Legislation Amendment Bill 2019, which implements a number of recommendations from the royal commission and improves the Commonwealth framework for offences related to child abuse material, overseas child sexual abuse, childlike sex dolls, forced marriage, failure to report child sexual abuse and failure to protect children from such abuse. These reforms will be welcomed by law enforcement bodies and law-abiding Australians, especially parents who have a rightful expectation that we do everything in our power to protect our children by ensuring that predators receive longer jail sentences.
This bill first came before parliament in 2017. On 3 September, 2019, Anthony Albanese said that people who engage in violent acts against children should have the book thrown at them, but in the same breath he claimed that these amendments could sometimes lead to fewer convictions rather than more, because judges or juries would take the view that because it's mandatory sentencing all of the circumstances couldn't be factored in. The Morrison government is not afraid to tackle this issue and supports community expectations and, indeed, the expectations of parents across the nation. Australians, rightly, expect that child sex offenders go to jail, and this bill will make sure that that happens.
We've all heard that the Greens and segments of the Labor Party don't support mandatory sentencing on principle, yet they did support mandatory minimum sentences for people smuggling offences during the previous failed Labor-Greens aligned government. Our argument is that this bill is too important not to support it. During the inquiry into Combatting Child Sexual Exploitation Legislation Amendment Bill 2019 Labor senators commented that mandatory sentencing increases the incentive for defendants to fight charges and may increase the risk of recidivism. This just isn't true. When the Western Australian state Liberal government introduced mandatory sentencing for assaults against police there was an impressive 28 per cent drop in police assaults in a 12-month period.
Labor has the chance to right the wrongs of the Shorten Labor opposition and support these important changes. It's time to put children first with the mandatory sentencing of child abusers. Forget ridiculous left-wing ideology positions. They are not relevant in this debate. Sexual predators deserve to be in jail. Our children deserve protection from evil predators, and our government, the Morrison government, is committed to seeing that happen.
It's my great pleasure to rise and speak on the Crimes Legislation Amendment (Sexual Crimes Against Children and Community Protection Measures) Bill 2019. The Morrison government is resolute in its commitment to protect children from sexual abuse. For too long, people who sexually abuse children have been receiving grossly inadequate sentences. It is completely unacceptable that, in 2018-19, 39 per cent of convicted Commonwealth child sex offenders did not spend a single day in prison. Last year, the Australian Federal Police received almost 18,000 reports of child exploitation involving Australian children or Australian child sex offenders. This number is abhorrent. It is almost double that of the previous year. This is an alarming trend that the Morrison government is committed to reversing. It is time to send a clear message to perpetrators that their behaviour will not be tolerated. That is why we are introducing the Crimes Legislation Amendment (Sexual Crimes Against Children and Community Protection Measures) Bill 2019.
What does this bill do? The bill strengthens Commonwealth laws in order to provide greater protection to the community through deterring and punishing child sex offenders.
The bill does four broad things to achieve this. It introduces new offences related to grooming activities and websites and online platforms designed to host child abuse material. It introduces new aggravated offences for the most horrific types of child abuse engaged in while someone is outside Australia, including where the child is subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. The bill implements a range of presumptions against bail and presumptions for imprisonment—very important provisions—meaning it will be more likely that child sex offenders will go to prison, they will stay there longer and it will be harder for them to get bail. Also, very importantly, the bill introduces mandatory minimum sentences for the most serious child sex offences and those who are repeat offenders to address the completely unacceptable situation where, as I've mentioned and as we've heard in this debate, 39 per cent of convicted offenders last year didn't spend a single day in jail.
The bill also implements recommendations from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse to protect vulnerable witnesses by allowing them to automatically give evidence via a video-recorded interview and also prohibits cross-examination at committal hearings. This bill complements a broad range of reforms already introduced by the coalition. These include tough new measures to stop child sex offenders from travelling overseas to abuse children; Carly's Law, which targets online predators who use the internet to prepare or plan to sexually abuse children; and the Combatting Child Sexual Exploitation Legislation Amendment Bill 2019, which implements a range of recommendations from the royal commission and improves the Commonwealth framework for offences relating to child abuse material, forced marriage and other matters such as the failure to protect children from abuse.
Where is the opposition on these matters? We know that Labor refused to support this bill when it was before the parliament in 2016. We know that Labor does not have the will to tackle these abhorrent crimes. We know that Labor is divided and not focused on passing these changes to protect children from predators. As we've just heard from Senator Hughes, and I will reiterate this, on 3 September 2019, the member for Grayndler, the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Albanese, said that people who engage in vile acts against children should have the book thrown at them. In the same breath, he argued about these amendments:
Sometimes what it can lead to is less convictions rather than more …
Because judges or juries will make the view that because it's mandatory sentencing, all of the circumstances can't be factored in.
This argument is nonsensical. It is completely at odds with community expectations that it is not okay for 39 per cent of child sex offenders convicted federally in the last financial year who did not spend a single day in jail. The community expects better than that, and that's why we are determined to implement this bill.
We know that the Greens and parts of the Labor Party don't support mandatory sentencing on principle, which of course is a principle they only employ some of the time, given their support for mandatory minimum sentences for people-smuggling offences in 2010. Does that mean Labor doesn't think that child sex offences are as serious as people-smuggling offences? In the inquiry into the Combatting Child Sexual Exploitation Legislation Amendment Bill 2019, Labor senators commented:
The problems created by removing judicial discretion in sentencing are well attested. As the Law Council of Australia stated in its Discussion Paper on Mandatory Sentencing (May 2014) there is very little evidence that mandatory sentencing increases public safety. On the contrary, the evidence is that it may have the opposite effect. Mandatory sentencing increases the incentive for defendants to fight charges and may increase the risk of recidivism.
That is completely not supported by the facts—facts like this: when the Western Australian state liberal government introduced mandatory sentencing provisions for assaults against police and other officers, there was a 28 per cent drop in assaults against police in just a 12-month period. I have to say this does not reflect at all well on the Law Council of Australia either.
Mr Albanese has a chance to right the wrongs of the Shorten Labor opposition and support these important changes. He needs to stand up to people in the Labor Party like Senator Carr, who oppose mandatory sentencing of child abusers because of some ridiculous ideological opposition. Mr Albanese needs to stand up for Australian families and support this critical legislation to protect our community from the evils of child sexual abuse. As I say, mandatory sentencing is a very important part of this bill. We will not tolerate the current record that we are seeing in relation to the number of convicted offenders who do not end up in jail. It is an abhorrent proposition, and the Morrison government is determined to remedy that.
The safety of children online is a key concern for this government and a key concern for the community. It is vital that we keep our children safe from sexual predators. Unwanted contact from strangers is one of the dangers children face when they are using the internet and social media, and I know that this is a particular concern for every parent, including me, given the fact that the internet has become a part of children's everyday lives in so many respects. As I say, for me as a parent, it causes me enormous worry, as I know it does with every parent. It's worth reiterating the eSafety Commissioner's top tips for parents in protecting their kids online. They include:
so that they can be properly monitored—
and in other ways in which third parties can access your children via the internet; and, of course, keeping engaged through watching what your children are doing and being very involved in your child's or children's online activities.
Importantly, the government—through the Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts, Paul Fletcher—is committed to introducing a new online safety act, having been through an extensive period of consultation. The Morrison government takes child sexual exploitation extremely seriously, and we are determined to tackle it comprehensively. Our children deserve that protection, and I commend this bill to the Senate.
The sexual abuse of a child is a terrible crime. It is the greatest of personal violations. It is perpetrated against the most vulnerable in our community. It is a fundamental breach of the trust which children are entitled to place in adults.
For too long, the criminal justice system has failed innocent children who have fallen victim to predatory offenders.
I thank the Senate Sanding Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, the Scrutiny of Bills Committee and the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights for their consideration of the Crimes Legislation Amendment (Sexual Crimes Against Children and Community Protection Measures) Bill 2019. This consideration gave the government the opportunity to further highlight the improved community safety which will result from these important reforms, including the operation of the mandatory minimum sentencing scheme, the presumptions in favour of actual imprisonment and cumulative sentencing, the presumption against bail, the increased requirements for rehabilitation and supervision of offenders, and the offences to counter emerging forms of child sexual abuse.
In their dissenting reports, the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional affairs, Labor and the Greens have called for the mandatory minimum sentencing scheme contained in schedule 6 of the bill to be removed. This was on the back of claims that mandatory minimum sentencing has perverse unintended consequences such as making it more difficult to prosecute criminals because they are less likely to plead guilty or to cooperate with law enforcement if faced with a mandatory minimum sentence. My Labor and Greens colleagues have again raised these issues as part of today's debate, and I would like to take the opportunity to address some of these concerns.
Senator McKim raised concerns that mandatory minimum penalties are ideological and not supported by any evidence that these penalties will in fact increase recidivism and de-incentivise offenders to plead guilty. With respect to Senator McKim: these claims are unfounded and contradicted by what we know about these truly abhorrent crimes. An offender being sentenced to a prison term increases the likelihood that they will be subject to supervision upon their release into the community, and they will be provided the opportunity to engage in rehabilitation programs and education to reduce their risk of reoffending.
Child sex offenders released from prison on parole are subject to robust parole conditions that require them to engage in psychological or other relevant treatment or restrict their use of electronic devices and also limit their engagement with children in the community. The bill incentivises offenders to enter early guilty pleas and to cooperate with law enforcement through sentencing discounts of up to 25 per cent for each form of assistance, resulting in a total potential sentencing discount of up to 50 per cent, not 25 per cent as stated by my colleague Senator Watt.
On the matter of guilty pleas: this is an argument often put forward for mandatory minimums. While you may argue it for people smuggling or for other crime types, it just doesn't hold weight in the case of child sex offences that we are discussing here. That is because, in so many of the cases we're talking about, offending is taking place online and, as a consequence, there is often irrefutable evidence of online child exploitation activity which comes from an individual's own devices. That is why, currently at least, 80 per cent of Commonwealth child sex offenders plead guilty. The existence or otherwise of mandatory minimum sentencing will make no difference to these offenders pleading guilty.
Senator McKim also raised his concern that mandatory minimum penalties may apply to sweetheart scenarios. I would like to reassure Senator McKim that the bill does not capture this type of conduct. The scheme does not apply to persons under 18 years old, so it will not apply to a 17-year-old innocently engaging with a 15-year-old girlfriend. The scheme has built-in safeguards to allow for the individual circumstances of each case to be taken into consideration at each step of the criminal justice process. History shows that these sweetheart scenarios are not the types of offences that are pursued. The cases that are pursued are those that involve predatory behaviour; they are the individuals the legislation targets and the agencies focus on.
Labor also raised a concern that juries and judges will be less likely to convict guilty people if they do not believe that a mandatory minimum sentence is justified in a particular case. Again, while this argument might work for mandatory minimums for other crimes, there is no evidence of this occurring; and, in relation to child sex offences, the most reprehensible type of offending on the statute books, it is a far-fetched claim.
In relation to Senator McKim's concern about the lack of evidence of mandatory minimums achieving their desired policy outcome, I would reiterate the example cited by the government during the debate earlier today in which it was outlined that there was in fact a 28 per cent decrease in assaults on police officers when Western Australia introduced laws that imposed a mandatory minimum sentence for police assaults. Of course, the purpose of mandatory minimums is not just as a deterrent but also to ensure that those who do commit the crime are appropriately punished.
I note, too, that concerns were raised during the debate that mandatory minimum sentences may result in unjust and disproportionate sentences, where the punishment does not fit the crime. However, this misses the nuance of the scheme. The scheme is a layered and considered approach which has safeguards that enable the court to take into account the circumstances of each individual case, and it ensures that judges maintain a high degree of discretion, which was a concern also raised by Senator McKim. Judicial discretion over the non-parole period is retained. Thus, notwithstanding a mandatory minimum sentence applying, it will be open to the judge to order a non-parole period for a time of their choosing. This allows the courts to take a range of considerations into account in determining a sentence of appropriate severity in all the circumstances of the case. This is, of course, in addition to the discretion available to the judge to issue discounts in sentencing of up to 50 per cent for guilty pleas and for cooperation with law enforcement. Further, people suffering from a cognitive impairment at the time of their offending will not be subject to the mandatory minimum sentencing, as the Crimes Act already contains protections to ensure that they do not face criminal responsibility. Indeed, the mandatory minimum sentencing scheme is a sensible solution that reflects community expectations and ensures that sentences for child sex offenders actually reflect the gravity of those crimes.
Concerns have also been raised about the resourcing impost that this bill will have on states and territories and law enforcement agencies. These concerns are also not well founded. States and territories were consulted during the development of this bill in various forums. In both July and October 2017, discussions were held on measures concerning child sex offenders at meetings of the national working group, which comprised senior police and justice officials from each of the states and territories and also from the Commonwealth. The Law, Crime and Community Safety Council; the Council of Australian Governments; and the Ministerial Council for Police and Emergency Management discussed measures relating to child sex offenders at meetings held variously in 2016, 2017 and 2019. Funding or resources have never been requested in any of these meetings.
The bill also contains a number of other important reforms which must also be acknowledged and which are supported by my opposition colleagues. The bill provides for increases to the maximum penalties for the most serious Commonwealth child sex offending, and the impact of these offences can be damaging and lifelong in their effect. Increased maximum penalties reflect the gravity and the higher level of culpability of these most serious offences.
I would like to place on the record that the proposal to simply increase the maximum penalties will not be enough to shift current sentencing practices, as some have suggested. Of those offenders who even received a custodial sentence, the most common time spent in jail was six months, despite some offences currently attracting imprisonment penalties of up to 20 years. In its dissenting report to the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, Labor recommended that the amendment of the bill include a comprehensive statutory review of the Commonwealth sentencing practices for child sex offenders, the findings of which should be reported to the parliament within three years of the bill coming into effect. My colleagues Senator Watt and Senator McKim have also tabled amendments providing for a statutory review. The government sees merit in this idea and has put forward amendments that would see a statutory review of sentencing for offenders convicted of Commonwealth child sex offences, with the findings to be reported to parliament within four years of the bill coming into effect, rather than within three years. This additional year will ensure that the review properly captures the impact of this bill on sentencing outcomes for Commonwealth child sex offenders charged after the passage of this bill.
In conclusion, this bill signifies this government's commitment to ensuring that the Australian community is protected from these heinous crimes. I thank honourable members for their contributions to this debate and I commend the bill to the Senate.
Question agreed to.
Bill read a second time.