Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Spray-on Justice

Another day, another Coalition "Law and Order" announcement.

I've written previously about the push for mandatory gaol sentences for cop killers (and David Shoebridge MLC posted an excellent criticism of the policy here).

Today O'Farrell announced that there would be expanded, stricter penalties for graffiti vandals.
Photo from here
I have no problem with graffiti being taken seriously.  It is a vandalism, it is a serious matter, and I don't doubt the figures quoted in this Herald article ($100 million spent per year, $50 million of that by CityRail).

The offence carries gaol as a maximum penalty and, for repeat or very serious offenders, that is an appropriate penalty.

That said, graffiti is, for now, usually punished by an on-the-spot fine.  Repeat offenders can be brought before the court on Malicious Damage charges, and receive the appropriate criminal penalties.

Today it was announced that all offenders will now have to attend court to be sentenced.

I wouldn't have a problem with this if the courts were not already stretched to capacity.  Most local courts struggle to deal with the quantity of work they already face, so it is going to be a challenge if there are now to be a whole new tranches of alleged offenders to be dealt with.

Another gripe with the move is the fact that these "law and order" policies seem to fly in the face of the government's stated policy to direct young people away from the court system.

Shoebridge said today "Less than a month after the Attorney-General called for less young people in the justice system, Greg Smith has announced a measure which is going to force more young people before the courts." quoted here.

Before the election, the then shadow attorney General called for an end to the unedifying "law and order auction" that took place every election.  Given the move towards mandatory sentencing and now this "crack-down" on graffitti, it would appear that the only reason the auction was ended was that the Coalition knew they could win without it
Attorney General Greg Smith, photo from here
That's all a side-point, however, to the really baffling part of this move: according to the Tele, "the courts will have the power to suspend a driver's licence, extend the period they remain on their learners or provisional licence or limit the number of demerit points accrued."

This idea is pretty stupid, for a number of reasons.

First of all, i question whether has anyone got any reason to believe that this will reduce offending other than "Yeah, that sounds like a good idea"?

I doubt it will.  O'Farrell said today "We know that too many of those involved in graffiti are young boys, but we know that young boys enjoy their cars and drivers licences - that's why we think this is an effective policy."

It just seems like something that might work. Or it might not.  But whatever, let's just inflict it on the community and see what happens!

I don't know how many convicted graffiti artists actual have drivers licences, let alone how many are 17, how many actually have accumulated demerit points, or how many people will therefore lose their licence.

I suspect the Coalition government doesn't really know either, because no one has actually had a close look at the issue to work out whether it will work.

Further, does an act of graffiti make a person any less fit to hold a driver's licence?  Why don't we also ban them from the CBD, forbid them owning a mobile phone, force them to get a haircut, or make them say "I must not ruin other people's stuff" 100 times whilst standing on one leg? Why are we taking their licence off them?

None of the reports I have read have any information as to whether these licence consequences will be mandatory on conviction, or whether they will be part of a magistrate's discretion.

As someone who works in the criminal law and deals extensively with licence issues, I'm pretty sure this is going to a massive headache for everyone involved.

There are already a large number of offences that can result in a loss of licence, including:
- Drink Driving
- Dangerous Driving
- Driving Whilst Suspended/Disqualified/Cancelled
- Driving Unlicenced

Of course, people can also lose their licence for having accrued too many points.

The system is complex.  Penalties and disqualifications increase if an offence is a second offence in a 5 year period. Disqualifications can be concurrent or  consecutive.

People who commit 3 major offences in 5 years are automatically given a further 5 years off the road, but this can be quashed at a later date.

Depending what kind of licence you have, you can accumulate different numbers of demerit points before you lose your licence.

Now we are going to start changing the number of points people can get, start extending their time on their P's, or even start suspending licences. And all for what?  All because "we know that young boys enjoy their cars and drivers licences - that's why we think this is an effective policy."

This is not dissimilar from the SDRO having the power to suspend driver's licences for non-payment. Yes, it is a useful enforcement, but we shouldn't be going about taking away privileges everyone else has without good reason.

If you are a drink driver, or if you drive recklessly, if you speed or if you talk on your phone while driving, you deserve to lose your licence.

But to start taking people's licence away for reasons entirely unconnected to a person's driving - it's arbitrary, it's going to be administrative nightmare, and there is no evidence (at least that I have seen) that it will work.

So what's the point? 


  1. Most of the teenagers who do graffiti are young and don't have licences. When they are forced to court, on a first offence, lawyers will push for their matters to be dismissed with caution, or referred for a Youth Justice Conference, unless the community service and disqualification components are mandatory.

    Neither of those will be ordered by Children's Court on a first offence unless they are mandated.

    So we end up with the same result that Police could have given them without sending them to Court.

    It is just boneheaded policy.

    I would have thought YJC would be a good outcome, if the victim was up for it. Make the kid confront an angry home owner whose wall has been defaced, make the community work component of the conference to clean up some graffiti, and that would be the last time a good portion of them did it.