Few could forget the tragic circumstances around the recent shooting of a young police detective in Sydney whilst on a drug raid.
It was initially thought that the bullet that killed him came from the gun of a 55 year-old man at the scene, who was charged with shooting with intent to kill. While it has since been established that the fatal shot actually came from a fellow police officer, the incident has nonetheless triggered public debate around the issue of mandatory sentencing.
Mandatory sentencing means punishing certain serious crimes with a set minimum term of imprisonment. It restricts a Magistrate or Judges ability to choose a sentence based on the particular facts of a case. The job of the jury is to determine whether the accused is guilty of the crime or not, and if so, then the mandatory sentence must be applied.
One view in response to the recent events is that anyone killing a police officer in the line of duty should face a mandatory gaol term – a long one. Killing a police officer is considered to be worse than killing anyone else. Its an aggravating factor to the crime, just as being armed when committing a robbery is an aggravating factor to that crime.
In relation to the recent shooting, the NSW Premier was quick to dampen any push for mandatory sentencing, on the basis that a jury may be less likely to convict an offender if the only outcome would be a very long time in gaol.
Judges and Magistrates have long objected to laws which set terms of mandatory imprisonment for serious offences, because these laws interfere with their ability to perform their intended role and objectively interpret the facts of each individual case.
Cynics would argue that it is often politicians who bring up mandatory sentencing; in an attempt to win over a public angry that a particularly serious offence has been committed.
The current situation in our courts allows the prosecution to appeal to a higher court if it is felt that the sentence handed out to an offender is “manifestly inadequate”. These appeals frequently occur, allowing the higher court to examine the original sentence and make changes, up or down, if it sees fit. The judgments accompanying these decisions are generally very detailed in their analysis.
Any aggravating circumstances to the commission of a particular offence can be taken into consideration at the time of sentence, or at an appeal, should the prosecution feel that a sentence is too short.
There is no doubt that the public deserves to be heard on its views around the most serious of crimes committed by members of society, but perhaps we should leave sentencing to the experts.