August 28, 2014  |  Second reading speech

Sentencing Amendment (Emergency Workers) Bill 2014

Mr CARROLL (Niddrie) — It is my pleasure also to speak on the Sentencing Amendment (Emergency Workers) Bill 2014, and I acknowledge the contribution and firsthand experience of the member for Gembrook. Like him — but only for a short period — I have worked with the Victoria Police. I have also worked in legal aid, I had an uncle who was an ambulance paramedic and I have seen what a marvellous job our emergency workers do. I want to put on the record very early in my contribution my acknowledgement of the role of our emergency workers and my belief that this is good legislation. We have some  comments to make about it and some concerns, but by and large the thrust of this legislation and its intent — to protect our emergency services workers and to put in place harsh penalties for those who may attack them — is a step in the right direction.

The second‑reading speech for this bill outlines its key parameters: statutory minimum sentences for violent offences against emergency workers on duty, authorised departures from statutory minimum sentences, young offenders and detention in youth justice facilities, baseline sentencing for murder of an emergency worker on duty — I want to say a little bit more about baseline sentences — new offences for assaults on emergency workers on duty, a new purpose and use for community correction orders, the imposition of sentence of imprisonment and community correction orders, and sentencing of offenders who commit arson offences.

Essentially the bill introduces stronger penalties for violent offences against emergency workers on duty. When we talk about emergency workers we are referring to police; protective services officers; paramedics; hospital employees; the staff of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade, the Country Fire Authority and the State Emergency Service; and lifesavers as well as others. We are also talking about nurses, doctors and hospital staff who may fall within the definition of an emergency worker. As I said earlier, we support the improvements this legislation will make for the safety and protection of our police and other emergency services workers.

It has been a great pleasure for me, since being elected to this place, to work with emergency workers in the Niddrie electorate. In particular I have got to know one of the ambulance paramedics, Guy Hampshire, who has given me a firsthand account of what he encounters every day in his role. With the member for Caulfield I am a member of on the Law Reform, Drugs and Crime Prevention Committee and have seen firsthand through our investigation into the drug ice its impact not only on police but — and probably even more so — on paramedics, who get the call‑outs to deal with the aggression and who put themselves in in the way of harm and danger day in and day out. In some ways it would  have been good if this bill had been introduced a couple of years ago when it was first proposed, but I understand as a result of stakeholder management and contact that such
legislation does take a while to develop.

The bill amends the Sentencing Act 1991 to provide a statutory minimum sentencing regime for offenders found guilty of causing injury or serious injury to emergency workers. The prescribed minimum sentence for each offence is a non‑parole period which will be  amended, in accordance with new section 10AA of the Sentencing Act, to five years  minimum for intentionally or recklessly causing serious injury in circumstances of gross violence, three years minimum for intentionally causing serious injury, two years minimum for recklessly causing serious injury, and six months minimum for intentionally causing reckless injury.

At the outset I spoke about judicial discretion in courts. Courts can avoid imposing a mandatory sentence if there is a special reason — in particular that the offender is aged
between 18 and 21, and especially if they are psychosocially immature, had an impaired mental functioning at the time of the offence, assist law enforcement authorities in the investigation and prosecution of the offence or are subject to a hospital treatment order.

The coverall exception applies where it is warranted in substantial and compelling  circumstances to avoid a manifest injustice. These provisions put some safeguards in place to preserve judicial discretion. I want to put on the record that I was reading through the latest issue of the Law Institute Journal entitled Call to Parties — State Election 2014 — Key Issues. There is a section about baseline sentencing. I think it is worth noting what Chief Justice Marilyn Warren and Chief Judge Michael Rozenes said. The journal article says:

Chief Justice Marilyn Warren and Chief Judge Michael Rozenes expressed their concerns about the economic cost of baseline sentences in a letter to the government that was published in the media in April.…

A 2011 … report into the deterrent effect of imprisonment found that it had a ‘small general deterrent effect’ that did not increase with the length of a sentence.

The article also quotes another person as saying:

If it’s $98 000 a year to keep someone in jail and there’s a capital cost of building more prisons, we think the money could be far better spent to get effective justice by using parole systems, using non‑custodial sentences and introducing a raft of measures that the courts can use to deter repeat offenders …

We should take note of the words of Chief Justice Marilyn Warren and Chief Judge Michael Rozenes, who are two eminent professionals in the legal fraternity.

We on this side of the house understand the need to protect our emergency services workers. I have had firsthand experience of this matter through the parliamentary inquiry into the drug ice. I have also had firsthand experience of this matter in working with paramedics in my local community of Niddrie. When it comes to ice, we are dealing with not only a drug of choice but also one that has an impact on dopamine and serotonin levels in the brain, which alter mood. It is having an enormous impact in terms of levels of violence. People who are susceptible to being violent are taking this drug, and that is having an impact not only in family homes but also on the paramedics called out to them.

I refer members to a report in the Age of 19 June entitled ‘Psychotic ice user jailed over police officer stabbing’ where a judge is quoted as saying:

The gravity of offending would normally have warranted a long jail sentence but there were mitigating circumstances and aspects of the case that made it ‘out of the ordinary’, given Power had suffered a significant but temporary mental illness …

This bill brings in a new single offence for assaulting, resisting, obstructing, hindering or delaying an emergency worker on duty, but we must be very mindful that where perpetrators are brought before the courts it is necessary for judges and magistrates to weigh up every situation carefully, which is what Marilyn Warren and Michael Rozenes were getting at when they outlined their concerns about baseline sentencing. However, I acknowledge that there are safeguards in this legislation for the courts to have discretion.

According to my research, stakeholders concerned with the passage of this bill include the Police Association and the Victorian branch of Ambulance Employees Australia (AEA),
which have both welcomed the harsher penalties for offenders who assault injured  workers on duty. However, they have also acknowledged that they believe that some of  these laws are unlikely to change or deter offending behaviour. In particular the AEA does not believe these changes will lead to more arrests. Many assaults are committed by people affected by drugs, alcohol, psychosis or mental illness, and the AEA is not confident that convictions will be secured in such cases.

If we look at the latest figures for crime in the 12 months to the end of March, we see that it is a fact that offences are up. Crimes against the person are up 2.7 per cent, crimes against property are up 4 per cent, drug offences are up 17.8 per cent and other crime is up 21.3 per cent.

Going back to my earlier comments, this legislation was promised in 2010. We are now in 2014. It would have been a lot better if we could have had this legislation earlier. If members look back over that same period, they will see that the paramedics dispute has been dragging on ever since this legislation was first talked about.

This is good legislation. It is a positive step, particularly for those paramedics on the front line. We should be proud of them. As I said, I have an uncle who is a paramedic. We have
the highest trained paramedics with the best cardiac arrest survival outcomes anywhere in Australia. They are also in need of further entitlements in terms of wages and conditions. Today members on both sides of the chamber have talked about what a great job they do. We all acknowledge their work. However, they need to be supported. We do not want to see an exodus of paramedics. Paramedics like Guy Hampshire in my electorate welcome this legislation, but I know he would also welcome a positive resolution to the ambulance officers’ ongoing enterprise bargaining agreement dispute.

The Law Reform, Drugs and Crime Prevention Committee has investigated the effects of the drug ice on members of our community. This legislation takes a very positive step. It is
good to see that there are safeguards in relation to judicial discretion. We do not oppose the bill, but we want to see that it does what it is meant to do — that is, protect paramedics, police officers and emergency services workers on the front line. With that, I wish the bill a speedy passage.