Embargoed until 10 p.m. (AEDT), Monday 24 February 2014
The Sentencing Advisory Council today published a report showing that community correction orders (CCOs) are being used by the courts in place of sentences that were abolished in January 2012 such as community-based orders. However, there is little evidence that the courts have embraced CCOs as an alternative to suspended sentences, which are being phased out as a sentencing option, first in the higher courts and later in the Magistrates’ Court.
Magistrates most commonly imposed CCOs for the offences of contravening a family violence intervention order (10.2%), theft (other than shoplifting) (8.7%) and recklessly causing injury (8.4%).
The Council’s research found that the move from suspended sentences in the Magistrates’ Court coincided with an increase in the imposition of fines and was primarily related to the abolition of the mandatory sentence for a second or subsequent offence of driving while disqualified or suspended. There was little evidence to show any move from suspended sentences towards CCOs. The research shows that magistrates are using CCOs and suspended sentences for different profiles of offenders and offences. Suspended sentences will not be available to magistrates from September 2014.
In the higher courts, judges most commonly imposed CCOs for the offences of armed robbery (9.5%), sexual penetration of a child under 16 years (7.6%) and intentionally causing injury (7.2%), though CCOs are not a frequently used sentencing option in those courts.
'Though it might appear that the imposition of a CCO is an insufficient sentence for the offence of sexual penetration of a child under 16 years', the Council’s Chair Emeritus Professor Arie Freiberg commented, 'this offence covers a range of offender behaviour and culpability'. A Council report into sentencing for sex offences from 2009 showed that over a quarter of charges in the category of sexual penetration of a child between the ages of 10 and 16 involved relationships between young people who are close in age – not predatory conduct of adults in relation to children. Professor Freiberg said that 'the community is rightfully concerned with sexual offences against children. However, CCOs can involve a significant element of punishment'.
A comparison of the profiles of offenders receiving CCOs and suspended sentences in the higher courts revealed some clear differences in the age of the offender and offence distributions.
The decline in the use of suspended sentences in the higher courts as a result of legislative changes restricting their use was initially accompanied by a rise in both imprisonment and community sentences, suggesting that CCOs were seen as an alternative to suspended sentences for some offenders. However, in the first half of 2013, as use of suspended sentences continued to decline, so did CCOs – while orders for imprisonment and fines continued to increase.
The reason for the decline in the use of CCOs is unclear prompting Professor Freiberg to say that 'the Council needs to examine more closely what factors are influencing judges’ decisions to impose imprisonment rather than a CCO'. The Council is awaiting further data, which may shed some light on sentencing practices after July 2013.