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The Late Debate: Crime and punishment - should life mean life for Australia's worst offenders? -

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EMMA ALBERICI, PRESENTER: Should life mean life for Australia's worst offenders? And what if a serious crime is committed by a child? Ruth Barson is the lawyer who took the case of Bronson Blessington and Matthew Elliott to the UN Human Rights Committee. On the other side of the debate is Peter Simpson, whose daughter Ebony was nine when she was raped and murdered in the New South Wales town of Bargo in 1992. Her killer was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Ruth Barson and Peter Simpson joined me earlier.

Ruth Barson, Peter Simpson, thank you so much for joining us for this debate.

PETER SIMPSON, EBONY SIMPSON'S FATHER: My pleasure.

RUTH BARSON, HUMAN RIGHTS LAW CENTRE: Thanks for having me.

EMMA ALBERICI: Now, Andrew Garforth, the man who raped and murdered your nine-year-old daughter at the time, Ebony, his file was marked, "Never to be released". If he were to become a model prisoner, was to show exemplary conduct in jail, should he have the chance to apply for parole?

PETER SIMPSON: Certainly not, in my view. In fact I don't think any of those criminals that do those heinous crimes need to have that opportunity. And I say that because I don't think judges in Australia or NSW in particular take these heinous crimes lightly. But what people have got to realise is the people left behind have a life sentence as well and it's made so much harder if they're constantly having to deal with the expected release of their particular murderer. It's very disconcerting.

EMMA ALBERICI: Ruth Barson, what's your view?

RUTH BARSON: Well Emma, we're obviously talking about heinous crimes, we're talking about crimes that have devastated individuals, families and communities and nobody is saying that these people shouldn't be punished and punished severely. The question for us as a community is what are the appropriate limits that we're willing to put around that punishment? In my view, the human rights view is that, yes, courts should be able to sentence people to life imprisonment, but with the caveat that in more often - in more cases than not, people should have a review date or a non-parole period date so that after 20 or 30 years they're able to have the opportunity to demonstrate that they've rehabilitated. Firstly, judges don't have crystal balls. They're not able to know whether somebody's going to continue to pose a risk to the community in 20 or 30 years' time. The second reason is that as a community, we've decided we value the right to life and that we value the right to dignity. Locking someone up in a concrete box without any hope of redemption, any prospect of release is just too cruel a punishment.

EMMA ALBERICI: Peter Simpson, it turns on the question of the role of our prison system, I suppose, and it's to have a dual purpose, most people understand it to be, and that is of course punishment, as Ruth articulates there, but also to rehabilitate. Do you accept that?

PETER SIMPSON: I accept that criminals, murderers in particular, are in there to be rehabilitated, yes, and I agree with the rehabilitation. Once rehabilitated, I believe that they should then do their work within the prison system as i.e. mentors for other prisoners and that's doing a good thing. There is still no place out in the general society, in my opinion, for these - these criminals. And ...

EMMA ALBERICI: Can I ask you specifically whether you think there should be an exception made for children, like Bronson Blessington, who was one of the ringleaders of course in the murder of Janine Balding back in 1988? He was 14 years old.

PETER SIMPSON: I'm familiar with that, yep. No. My personal view on that is if you're old enough to do the crime, you're old enough to do the time and he is currently doing the time. And that is what the - that's what's been imposed on him. And he, like the people left behind, like the families, like Janine Balding's mother, who's passed away, a father and siblings, they're living a life sentence. It's not easy for them.

EMMA ALBERICI: Ruth Barson, the UN had something to say about this recently. Just remind us what their view was about Australia's treatment, particularly of young offenders.

RUTH BARSON: Well the Human Rights Committee, the world's authority on human rights, found that Bronson Blessington and Matthew Elliott's sentence of whole-of-life imprisonment, of cementing them in their cells, in the words of former Premier Bob Carr, was cruel and inhumane. And the reason that they found that is because children are fundamentally different to adults. And Emma, the reason for that is because science tells us young people have a unique capacity to rehabilitate, to learn from their lessons, to grow, to change, and that's why locking children up forever, throwing away the key and never giving them the opportunity to live outside of prison walls is cruel and inhuman. We have to remember that if we impose a whole-of-life sentence on a child, that child is actually being punished in a much more severe way than an adult who's 40 or 50 who commits the same offence.

EMMA ALBERICI: Peter, what do you say to that?

PETER SIMPSON: Well, on the human rights issue, I would question where was Janine Balding's human rights on the evening when she was just going about her business after work, working in a bank, and just on her way home when she was set upon by these five individuals? And then, the one closest to my heart is my own daughter, who went to school in the morning, happy, healthy and never to be seen again. You know? Abducted. You know, the rest is history. I mean, where's the human rights of your average member of the public?

RUTH BARSON: I absolutely agree that victims' human rights, that their family's human rights, that the community's human rights have been fundamentally infringed upon when these types of heinous offences occur. There's absolutely no doubting that. But the question for us as a community is: how do we respond to those horrific acts? Do we respond to acts of inhumanity with inhumanity? Do we respond with an ethos of an eye for an eye or vengeful justice? I think we all agree that what we want is no more victims, what we want is a safer community. And we can talk about increasing sentences by 10 years, by 20 years, by 30 years, but really, tougher sentences is a false economy. All of the evidence shows that what's going to make us a safer community is in fact investing in early intervention and prevention, investing in stopping crime happening in the first place and that's really where we need to be focusing our energy.

EMMA ALBERICI: And we are running out of time, so a final word from you, Peter Simpson.

PETER SIMPSON: My final word would be: ask the general public, ask the populace of NSW and Australia what they think and there's your answer. And I think you'll find that it's overwhelmingly in favour of leaving these people where they are.

EMMA ALBERICI: Peter Simpson, Ruth Barson, I really appreciate the time you've taken to talk to us.

RUTH BARSON: Thanks, Emma and thanks, Peter.

PETER SIMPSON: Thank you too.

EMMA ALBERICI: We did exactly that; we asked you if you thought life should mean life. Many of you said yes, pointing out that victims' families have life sentences imposed on them as soon as these crimes are committed. Some of you felt there should be exceptions for children and better facilities to deal with young offenders. Others were in favour of a justice system with rehabilitation at its core. On Twitter, 85 per cent of you said life should mean life, and on Facebook, that was 80 per cent.