The Vic/Tas Uniting Church synod advocates the use of prison as a last resort and would prefer instead to see a range of options that would be more likely to prevent crime in the first place.
A suspended sentence is where a court would normally send someone to prison, but instead allows them to remain in the community provided they do not commit another serious crime. Sometimes crimes committed will not best be rectified by time in prison.
Suspended sentences are usually used for offences such as fraud, assault or forgery of documents. It means the person is subject to monitoring and restrictions, but they have an opportunity to try to get their life back on track without the disruption of being removed from their family, home or job.
The synod is concerned that the removal of suspended sentences as an option may increase the level of re-offending, also known as recidivism. Research has shown that suspended sentences result in lower levels of reoffending compared to sending people to prison.
According to a recent NSW study there was no evidence that prison acted as a greater deterrent than suspended sentences.
In fact, the study argued that for prisoners who had previously been to prison, suspended sentences were significantly more effective in preventing future offending than immediate terms of imprisonment.
The study’s findings are consistent with other research which shows that, rather than deterring re-offending, imprisonment makes re-offending more likely.
Abolishing suspended sentences may also increase the prison population in Tasmania beyond its ability to cope. This will reduce the ability of prison to rehabilitate people.
At the core of our faith we believe in forgiveness and reconciliation. This is a life-long process, and can be especially difficult for those who have been harmed and who sometimes suffer for the rest of their lives as a result of the crime committed against them.
Our Christian belief is that each person is loved by God and deserves to be treated with dignity. God desires wholeness for all our lives including the opportunity to put right the wrongs we have done.
The Sentencing Advisory Council has recommended a wider range of alternatives, which the synod supports. Having a range of sentencing options, other than prison, enables rehabilitation for the person who has committed the crime.
There is always a story behind a crime. Often better outcomes for everyone are achieved with options such as treatment for drug and alcohol abuse, counselling for trauma (many people who commit crimes have a history of abuse themselves) and other rehabilitation programs.
Sentencing reform should focus on increasing and strengthening non-custodial sentencing options that provide a wide scope for rehabilitation and treatment.
According to Smart Justice – which is supported by a coalition of organisations led by the Federation of Community Legal Centres (Victoria) Inc, the peak body for Victoria’s 50 community legal centres – suspended sentences are an important option for judges.
But, judges must be able to add conditions to suspended sentences to address the causes of offending and to reduce the chances of reoffending.
The government also needs to communicate to the community that suspended sentences do not mean an offender is escaping punishment.
Suspended sentences have serious consequences for those seeking to enter many overseas countries for work or pleasure where they are often asked to disclose prison sentences.
Research in Victoria found that more than half of suspended sentences were imposed in conjunction with another sentencing option such as a fine or community-based order.
A breach of a suspended sentence also means the offender must go to prison unless it would be unjust to do so in light of any exceptional circumstances which might have arisen.
Imprisoning all offenders does not mean a society is any safer, even if that is the perception.
Suspended sentences can also better achieve our overall goal to create communities where everyone is safe. Our prisons are already at capacity. If our goal as a society is to reduce crime – and the harm caused through crime – then having flexibility in sentencing options is vital.
Rev Carol Bennett
Tasmanian Synod Liaison Officer