News

Judicial system under pressure

By Myles Peterson

A succession of harsher sentencing and bail laws is placing enormous pressure on the judicial system, according to experts and those on the ground.

The shortage of resources is leading to unjust outcomes, some argue, as alleged offenders wallow behind bars waiting for a court hearing and minor offences see more people being remanded into custody.

Member for Shepparton Suzanna Sheed said inadequate resourcing was clogging the system.

‘‘I’m hearing stories about some of the more vulnerable groups in our community who are ending up in jails and cells around the state and I’m hearing about the impact the lack of resources in the system is having on getting people before a magistrate,’’ she said.

‘‘Magistrates are sitting in court saying, ‘Is Bill Smith here today? He was meant to be here to get his case heard.’ And the police are saying, ‘We couldn’t get him here because the cells in Shepparton are full and we’ve got nowhere to put him and the resources aren’t there to get him here,’ and the case is adjourned off until another day.’’

Ms Sheed, formerly a practising lawyer, said neither Labor nor the Coalition had effectively budgeted for their tough-on-crime bidding war, ramming legislation through the state parliament while not considering the full impact at the coalface.

‘‘We’re sitting in parliament passing harsher laws to deal with a whole range of people, including mandatory sentencing laws. This is going to explode the number of people who will require a prison bed,’’ she said.

‘‘There are not enough beds. There’s been more opened periodically, but I don’t think we’ll be able to keep up.’’

Victoria Police’s Superintendent Matthew Ryan said his organisation was coping.

‘‘The number of prisoners being held in police cells statewide is currently very high, including in Shepparton,’’ he said.

‘‘Victoria Police has been working closely and collaboratively with the courts and Corrections Victoria to resolve the issues. We want to reassure the community that the Shepparton police station remains fully operational and service to the community has not been disrupted.’’

University of Melbourne lecturer and consultant criminologist Dr Karen Gelb said despite media coverage to the contrary, crime statistics were consistently falling and Labor and the Coalition were simply running a scare campaign to get elected.

‘‘In Victoria the crime rate has broadly been going down for 15 years or more,’’ she said.

‘‘Mandatory sentencing and the longer sentences and the crackdown on bail and parole — none of those have anything to do with the evidence. People should look at the data for themselves and not believe the fear-mongering that’s being spouted by the politicians, particularly by the Opposition.’’

The media held a large part of the responsibility for painting a false picture of crime levels according to Dr Gelb, and politicians were playing to the resulting outcry to garner votes.

‘‘The point for the parties is to be re-elected, but they’re ignoring evidence,’’ she said.

A spokesperson for Corrections Minister Gayle Tierney said the former government had left a legacy of overcrowding, but Labor was determined to increase prison numbers.

‘‘The previous Liberal government left our state with overcrowded prisons and police cells — making them less safe for prisoners, staff and the community,’’ she said.

‘‘Our record investment in thousands of extra police, and tougher bail and sentencing laws means more people are in prison.’’

However, she disputed Labor was not investing in resources.

‘‘We’re fixing the mess they (Liberals) left behind. We’ve opened nearly 2000 new beds — with more than 1200 more beds to come — and added more than 520 prison staff.’’

The office of Edward O’Donohue, Shadow Minister for Corrections, was contacted for comment.

HELD IN CELLS FAR FROM HOME

A woman who turned 18 last month has told The News of a ‘‘frightening’’ experience, spending four days behind bars in the crowded Shepparton Police Station cells far from her home town.

Kate* (not her real name) was arrested in Kilmore last Friday and charged with breaching a family violence intervention order brought against her by the Department of Human Services.

The arrest sparked a series of events that saw her placed in a police van, held at Wallan Police Station and then transferred 140km to Shepparton where she has no friends, family or support network.

The young woman’s arrest followed consensual contact with her partner, named as the other party in the intervention order, according to text messages presented to the Shepparton Magistrates’ Court.

The partner sought contact, texting both Kate and Kate’s mother prior to a rendezvous in Kilmore, the court heard.

‘‘The previous day (the police) came and picked up (my girlfriend) from the house,’’ Kate said of the day before her arrest.

Police returned the following day and arrested Kate for breaching the intervention order.

Kate said she became angry when the arresting officers refused to let her get fully dressed.

‘‘I got woken up and the police were at the door. I got handcuffed straight away. I asked the police officer if I could go inside and put a bra on. He said ‘No’ and chucked me straight in the divvy van,’’ she said.

Police alleged in the magistrates’ court that Kate had spat in the van and ordered her dog to attack them.

No evidence was given in court of a dog attack, or evidence the dog was dangerous.

Police said the back of the van required a ‘‘bioclean’’ because it had been spat in.

Previous intervention breaches and a theft charge enabled Victoria Police to remand Kate over the weekend due to changes to the Bail Act that took effect in July, according to evidence tendered to the magistrates’ court.

Kate said being transported to Shepparton and held in the police cells was a scary experience.

She said she had nothing to do for four days but stare at the walls and sleep, sharing a cell with two other women.

A male prisoner in a cell next to the women’s shower was in permanent lock-down and when police needed to interact with the male prisoner the women would also be placed in lock-down, she said.

The shower only ran cold water, according to Kate.

‘‘I was literally waiting, hanging in there until Monday and hoping for Monday when I had my court hearing. I just wanted to see the judge and I was scared he wasn’t going to release me,’’ she said.

When the case finally came before Magistrate John Murphy on Monday afternoon, he expressed concerns at the woman’s treatment.

‘‘She’s been in the cells since Friday? Is this a result of the new bail laws?’’ he asked the court.

‘‘I must say this concerns me.’’

Mr Murphy promptly released the young woman, imposing no conviction and a bond without conditions that will automatically expire in March next year.

Following her release, police drove Kate to the Shepparton Railway Station where she was left wearing improvised clothing.

She had no money, no phone or a ticket for the return 140km journey to Kilmore.

Kate’s ordeal follows a series of complaints from local defence lawyers that minor offenders are finding themselves in police cells as a result of the changes to the Bail Act.

Overcrowding also meant alleged offenders were being shipped around the state as Victoria Police went ‘‘cell shopping’’ for any location able to hold those remanded into custody, according to critics.