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NSW backs sharper knife laws -

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NSW backs sharper knife laws

Barbara Miller reported this story on Thursday, October 22, 2009 12:39:00

ELEANOR HALL: The New South Wales Government is backing a law which could send even first time
offenders to prison for knife possession.

The Government says the law will send a strong message on crime and the Opposition says the change
is long overdue.

But civil liberties campaigners and criminologists describe the proposals as draconian and
symbolic.

In Sydney, Barbara Miller reports.

BARBARA MILLER: In the year to June 2009, 3,736 crimes were recorded in New South Wales where a
knife, sword, scissors or screwdriver was used as a weapon.

The previous year more than 4,000 such crimes were recorded. That represents a drop of around 8 per
cent.

But that's not enough for the New South Wales Labor Government which is supporting a bill drafted
by the Reverend Fred Nile to toughen up knife crime legislation.

The state's Attorney-General is John Hatzistergos.

JOHN HATZISTERGOS: The bill will amend the legislation so that we have a single offence structure.
And it means that even a first offender may be able to be sent to jail in relation to an offence of
being in possession of a knife in a public place or school without reasonable excuse.

The maximum penalty that will be available includes imprisonment of up to two years.

BARBARA MILLER: The maximum fine for refusing a police search will also be significantly increased.

The Opposition spokesman Greg Smith says the measures are long overdue.

GREG SMITH: For years the Liberals and Nationals have called for tougher penalties for knife
possession and it's tragic that it's taken this broken government so long to consider the many
thousands of victims of knife crimes and doing something to support them.

BARBARA MILLER: But some members of the community say they are concerned by the news.

Stephen Blanks is the secretary of the New South Wales Council for Civil Liberties.

STEPHEN BLANKS: Knife crime is declining in New South Wales and there's no evidence that greater
sentences are necessary to reduce knife crime.

BARBARA MILLER: The member who introduced the bill, Fred Nile, details a whole list of knife crime
attacks though. Do you think there's not concern in the community about this kind of crime?

STEPHEN BLANKS: Of course there's concern in the community. Each individual incident is disturbing.
But politicians, our parliamentarians should not be making laws on the basis of individual
incidents. They should be making laws on the basis of the overall statistical evidence and that
shows that knife crime is declining.

BARBARA MILLER: It's unlikely though isn't it that any person would be sent to jail for the maximum
term of two years unless they were found to be guilty of a serious knife crime offence?

STEPHEN BLANKS: That's correct and in that way this amendment is purely symbolic. Increasing the
maximum penalties doesn't mean that the courts will be imposing greater penalties in any particular
case.

BARBARA MILLER: Chris Cunneen, a professor of criminology at the University of New South Wales,
says the changes are draconian.

CHRIS CUNNEEN: I don't see having more draconian penalties like this as really resolving some of
the issues that have arisen already with the legislation.

BARBARA MILLER: In particular Professor Cunneen is worried about how tougher laws could affect the
way young people are treated by police.

CHRIS CUNNEEN: We certainly know from the evidence that's been assembled in relation to the way
people are searched that police focus tends to be on young people in relation to this legislation.

And in the vast majority of the searches that police conduct on young people are in fact
unsuccessful. That is, after they've searched the young person, often in public, often with a
certain degree of humiliation to that young person, the police actually don't find a knife or a
prohibited implement.

And I think that indicates some of the dangers that are around this legislation and the way it's
used at a street level in terms of policing.

BARBARA MILLER: The New South Wales Government says it's not swayed by those arguments, saying it's
important to send a strong message on knife crime.

ELEANOR HALL: Barbara Miller reporting.