A recent survey by the Sentencing Advisory Council has found that two thirds of respondents felt that judges are out of touch with society. In response, the Victorian Attorney-General has claimed that the survey is “further evidence that many Victorians are dissatisfied with the sentences that offenders receive”. The Victorian Government has conducted its own survey on sentencing laws.
That the so many Victorians feel no connection with their criminal justice system and their judges is cause enough for concern. Clearly there is a need for reform and better avenues of communication and education between the public and the courts. However, any calls for mandatory sentencing or lessening of judicial discretion should be met with caution. It was only a couple of weeks ago that Judge Lisa Hannan bemoaned strict laws which required her to order a 20-year-old man be placed on the sex offenders list for the rest of his life. This was in spite of the fact that he was deemed to have had excellent prospects of rehabilitation.
Whilst we are rightly wary of the injustice of judges making judgment according to their personal whims, we should also be wary of the injustice of an arbitrarily applied rule. When we say that justice is blind, we mean that justice should not give preferential treatment, not that justice is blind to the humanity of those before it.
It is in light of this that an article by Vickie Roach published by our friends at the Alternative Law Journal back in 2008 seems more relevant than ever. Vickie Roach is a member of the Stolen Generations and has spent time in and out of prison. In Roach v Australian Electoral Commission and Commonwealth of Australia, the Human Rights Law Centre successfully challenged the constitutionality of legislation passed by the Howard Government which sought to remove prisoners’ right to vote. Roach’s appeal for prisoner’s rights echoes Dostoevsky’s claim that “a society should be judged not by how it treats its outstanding citizens but by how it treats its criminals’.
It is a timely reminder amidst calls for harsher and more arbitrary sentencing that justice is not merely retribution, and that the humanity of prisoners should not be swept aside in our desire for vengeance.