Ms PATTEN (Northern Metropolitan) (12:33): My question is for the Attorney-General and relates to sentencing. Victorian women prisoners are growing at the fastest rate in the Western world, with Aboriginal women being the most incarcerated group on the planet by population.
As we heard in the justice inquiry and from organisations like the Health and Community Services Union, the vast majority of female prisoners are victims of family violence, and women tend to have shorter stays in prison for non-violent offences.
However, short prison stays hugely impact health and mental health treatment and disrupt important stabilising factors like accommodation, family and employment. So my question to the Attorney-General is: will you amend the Sentencing Act 1991 to mitigate this trend?
Ms SYMES (Northern Victoria—Leader of the Government, Attorney-General, Minister for Emergency Services) (12:34): I thank Ms Patten for her question and her ongoing interest in these matters.
I agree with you, there are too many women in our custodial settings. A lot of them are on remand. We know that this is a growing concern, and we are continually looking at programs of diversion and support services for women, particularly as we know many women who are incarcerated are victims themselves, predominantly.
So many of them have been subjected to family violence and the like and have housing issues and a lot of underlying causes that lead to them coming into contact with the justice system. So there are a range of responses in relation to preventing women going into custody.
In relation to sentencing reform, you have made recommendations in this chamber before about someone’s gender being a factor of consideration in sentencing. It certainly something that I do not dismiss out of hand, but you have asked a very specific question about whether I will be amending the Sentencing Act specifically.
I will not this term in relation to the legislative program, but with sentencing more generally, the Sentencing Act of Victoria is certainly something that I am interested in exploring, but I am not in a position to give you guaranteed commitments around what that would look like.
I have made it quite clear that when it comes to matters such as that I am very interested in people’s views—victims’ views, justice stakeholders’ views and the like—and I would welcome any of your feedback. Indeed some of the work in relation to the justice inquiry has merit.
Ms PATTEN (Northern Metropolitan) (12:35): Thank you, Minister. I do want to acknowledge that we are starting to see a reduction in women in prison in Victoria, but they are still so over-represented.
But by way of supplementary, imprisonment is a sanction of last resort, and it is inherently punitive. Community correction orders are also punitive but might be better at addressing all other sentencing purposes. CCOs are not necessarily used by the courts as creatively as the Sentencing Act permits.
For example, restriction, exclusion and curfew conditions could be used in combination to effectively home detain.
Short of amending the Sentencing Act, will the Attorney-General advocate in the sector for more creative use of CCOs as an alternative to short terms of imprisonment?
Ms SYMES (Northern Victoria—Leader of the Government, Attorney-General, Minister for Emergency Services) (12:36): I welcome your comments, but we are skating perilously close to separation of powers issues in relation to dictating to the courts how I think they should apply their sentences and the like.
But your comments and the issues that you have identified are something that I am particularly interested in. We have ongoing conversations about this between me, the Minister for Corrections and the other ministers that have interrelated portfolios, whether it is housing or whether it is family service support and the like.
It is something that we need to get better at. I think, as you have identified, we are seeing some positive trends, but there are still some of those cohorts that are over-represented, and that is not a trend that we want to see. We want to see that going backwards.
I take on board your comments, and there are certainly alive discussions amongst government on the same themes that you have raised.
Fiona Patten MP
Leader of Reason
Member for Northern Metropolitan Region
Question without notice 19/8/22