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Thursday, 31 May 1984
Page: 2225

Senator DURACK —My question is directed to the Attorney-General. I refer the Attorney to the release on parole of Murray Stewart Riley, a former policeman who was given a long gaol sentence for his part in what was one of the biggest drug importation cases in Australian history and whose non-parole period under his Commonwealth sentence was not due to expire until December of this year. The release is about seven months before the expiration of his non-parole period. I ask the Attorney: In view of the continuing grave problem in relation to the drug trade-highlighted again this morning by a story in the Age newspaper of another major cocaine smuggling ring-what were the grounds on which he agreed to this early release of Riley? Does he believe that it was wise from a deterrent point of view, particularly in view of the publicity it has attracted, including today's photograph of Riley relaxing with a beer on the banks of the Georges River?

Senator GARETH EVANS —I can understand some concern about this matter and I can assure honourable senators that the decision was not made lightly or without very careful attention to the matters in issue. What was in issue was the application to this prisoner of a rule of general application which has been applied to all Commonwealth prisoners and it was really a matter of producing reasons why this particular prisoner ought not be entitled to the benefit of the application of a rule which is generally applicable. It was not a matter of exercising a favourable discretion based on the circumstances of this case. The situation is that following recent changes to parole legislation in New South Wales, offenders sentenced in that State after the legislation came into force have their non-parole periods reduced by remission. New South Wales offenders sentenced before the legislation came into force are required to be considered for possible release on parole with the new remissions notionally applied to their non-parole periods.

In the interests of securing uniformity in the administration of justice as between Federal prisoners housed in New South Wales prisons and New South Wales prisoners, it has been determined as a policy matter to apply the New South Wales rules to the very small number of Federal prisoners in New South Wales gaols. That is the case as a matter of law for prisoners sentenced after 27 February and it has been the case as a matter of practice in relation to Federal prisoners sentenced before 27 February this year. Of course Mr Riley was sentenced in New South Wales prior to the proclamation of the New South Wales Act on 27 February. I have approved, as I said, as a general rule, that Federal offenders sentenced before that should be considered for release on licence at the expiration of their minimum terms as reduced by the new remissions. Mr Riley 's non-parole period, calculated by reference to this particular consideration, would have expired with the new remissions on about 8 July 1982. Because of these recent changes to New South Wales law Mr Riley was reviewed by the New South Wales Parole Board for possible release and following the approval by that Board of his entitlement to the application of the new rules he in turn applied to me, as is normal and as Senator Durack will recall is the practice.

Senator Chipp —What if he had been in a Victorian gaol?

Senator GARETH EVANS —The difficulty is that there is a monumental tangle of different rules applicable in every jurisdiction in Australia so far as parole and non-parole periods are concerned and in regard to remissions both notional and actual that are in fact applied. The threshold question is whether or not we try to seek uniformity nationally in the treatment of Federal prisoners or whether, rather, we try to treat the prisoners in each jurisdiction in the same way as the State prisoners in that particular jurisdiction. The practice has increasingly been to try to treat the Federal prisoners in a particular State in the same way as the other prisoners in that State, for the reason of the acute difficulties that arise in prison administration, morale, and tension and so on in the gaol environment if that is not done. Without going into the detail of what the situation in Victoria is, I can say to Senator Chipp that the inclination would have been to treat him in exactly the same way as a comparable prisoner in Victoria would have been treated. I repeat: Mr Riley's case was not considered by me on any basis other than that of the application of these rules to him as a Federal offender in New South Wales. I might add, for what it is worth, that there were outstanding prison and parole officer reports in relation to him, and given all the circumstances it would have been an exercise of discretion of a rather tough kind and very peculiarly made in relation to this prisoner for me to have done otherwise than follow what happened in New South Wales and make the release accordingly.

I have given a long answer because it needs to be appreciated that these sorts of decisions are not made in any cavalier or off-hand way; they are made so far as possible by the application of general principles, and it would be most unfortunate for public confidence in the administration of justice if decisions were made on any other basis than that.

Senator DURACK —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Am I correct in understanding from that answer that in relation to the parole of Federal offenders the Attorney has now adopted as a matter of course the new statutory provisions in New South Wales?

Senator GARETH EVANS —Yes, I have in relation to Federal offenders who are punished and imprisoned in New South Wales gaols. Might I add that this whole question of sentencing is one that continues to give me considerable concern, including in particular the reluctance of the States-Senator Durack would be familiar with this-to co-operate with the Commonwealth in implementing a national sentencing council to try to get some better, more coherent, rational and understandable rules applicable on a national basis. I am anxious to get the Australian Law Reform Commission moving, in conjunction with the Australian Institute of Criminology, to further develop and look at this particular area with a view to getting perhaps a more universally satisfactory system of rules operating.