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Legal experiment, major issue in WA election -

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Legal experiment, major issue in WA election

Broadcast: 21/08/2008

Reporter: Hamish Fitzsimmons

Western Australia's truth in sentencing laws were introduced five years ago to clarify an informal
sentencing procedure where people would get about a third off their sentences for good behaviour in
gaol. The laws have led to accusations that the judiciary is soft on crime. Both parties are
promising to scrap the laws but until a new parliament is formed judges have to sentence people
knowing the cases will most likely be reviewed.


KERRY O'BRIEN, PRESENTER: A controversial legal experiment in Western Australia has become a major
election issue and created a legal nightmare for judges during the campaign.

WA's so-called truth in sentencing laws were introduced five years ago to clarify an informal
sentencing procedure where people would get about a third of their sentences off for good behaviour
in jail.

Its aim was to let the community know how much time a criminal would actually spend behind bars,
but it has led to accusations that the judiciary is soft on crime.

Both parties are promising to scrap the current laws, but until a new parliament is formed, judges
have to sentence people knowing their cases will probably have to be reviewed.

Hamish Fitzsimmons reports.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: Steve and Annette Dix live in south-west WA and rarely make the journey to
Perth. But they've come here to meet the State's most senior police and legal officers.

ANNETTE DIX, VICTIM'S MOTHER: It's to make sure that our children, especially our two youngest
children, who witnessed their brother's murder, know that we have done absolutely everything that
we possibly can to keep them safe, both now and in the future.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: Last year their 19-year-old son Lawrence was shot and killed on the doorstep of
their home over a $100 debt.

Steve and Annette Dix now want to know why the man who pleaded guilty to their son's manslaughter
will serve just two years in jail.

ANNETTE DIX: We can't say to our son, "It's OK now, you can come home in 12 months' time". We still
go and visit a graveyard, and all I do is hug a photograph.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: Their son's killer, Jack Benjamin Hall was originally sentenced to nine years
in jail, but had that reduced after a guilty plea and time already served.

His sentence was even further reduced under WA's controversial truth in sentencing laws, which
automatically cutting his jail time by a third.

ANNETTE DIX: Why should somebody who has done something like that, not just our case, but every
other case, who has taken the life of somebody receive a discount? For us as victims, that is more,
as hurtful as any legal process can be.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: Truth in sentencing was introduced in 2003 to clarify an informal procedure
that had been in place for years where prisoners would receive lengthy reductions on their jail
terms for good behaviour. It was intended to let the community know the actual time a person would
serve in jail.

CHRISTIAN PORTER, WA SHADOW ATTORNEY-GENERAL: The unfortunate effect of it is, is that it is an
untruthful system and it has brought the court system into disrepute because people who are not
legally trained see an offender get a 20 year sentence and then see that automatically reduced by
one third for reasons that are lost really in the history of time now.

JIM MCGINTY, WA ATTORNEY-GENERAL: We wanted to make that more transparent. We intended that the
discounting would be phased out over a relatively short period of time and consequently it's
referred to as the transitional provisions.

HYLTON QUAIL, LAW SOCIETY OF WA: It was an automatic discount, that's why it should be abolished.
And people recognise that, the Government recognised that back in 2003.

But getting rid of an automatic discount doesn't mean that you should therefore automatically jump
the actual time in custody by a half or so.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: And that's a concern for legal practitioners, as well as those who help former
inmates re-enter society.

PETER SIRR, OUTCARE: I think if you are going to say to someone, "You're doing 15 years in jail,
and that's what it's going to be and that's what it is, there's absolutely no incentive for
someone, there's nothing to look forward to.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: Outcare in East Perth has thousands of former prisoners on its books. Though
truth in sentencing can serve a useful purpose in rehabilitation, Outcare CEO Peter Sirr says it's

PETER SIRR: Id' think people don't really understand the process at all. When they're making
adjustments here and doing calculations on the side about making that's the sentence now but we're
doing this and doing that. I actually think clarity is really what the community wants.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: Law and order is never very far away from an election campaign in the west. And
both parties are promising to scrap truth in sentencing in favour of allowing judges more

JIM MCGINTY: It will give the court the capacity to impose the maximum sentence in the worst
possible case but in the general case to have reference to past sentencing practice and the
sentence that has been awarded for like cases.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: But the Government's promise to backdate new legislation has created a legal
black hole, according to the Law Society.

HYLTON QUAIL: The Government said they should win sentencing in relation to matters which come
before them now, sentence on the basis of what the law might be in the future, and if they don't
know what the law is in the future now, then in the future they'll be appealed in relation to any
sentences that they get wrong now.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: The Attorney General Jim McGinty didn't respond to the 7.30 Report's request
for an interview and the State Opposition says Mr McGinty must accept responsibility for the

CHRISTIAN PORTER: It should have been dealt with much, much earlier. Constantly the
Attorney-General of this State said that he was receiving advice. Now I don't know how long that
advice takes to be sought, given and accepted, but far too long.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: While politicians wrangle over who is tougher on crime, Annette and Steve Dix
will meet Western Australia's Chief Justice tomorrow, hoping any new laws will bring clarity where
there was confusion.

STEVE DIX, VICTIM'S FATHER: That's the reason why we're meeting with the commissioner of police,
and with the heads of the judicial system, so we can learn more about how to go about making that
change, and we'll obviously do it in a diplomatic and a professional sort of way.

KERRY O'BRIEN: That report from Hamish Fitzsimmons.