NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell has vowed to tackle alcohol-related violence with a raft of tough new laws. But a quick fix 'one size fits all' approach to crime won't work, writes Alex McClintock.
“King hits” are now “coward punches” and the language of the debate around “alcohol-fuelled violence” has become inextricably linked to spinelessness. It’s fitting, then, that the NSW government has buckled in response to a hysterical media campaign on the issue and rushed to put in place what the TV news tends to call “tough new laws”.
The package of new measures announced yesterday includes expanded Sydney CBD lockout zones, a freeze on new liquor licenses, the closure of bottle shops at 10pm and, most worryingly, new mandatory minimum sentences for a variety of offences.
All this is occurring despite the fact that the rate of alcohol-related assaults is steadily declining. The statistics, though, are cold comfort to the parents of Thomas Kelly and Daniel Christie. They, and we as a society, may still decide that the level of drunken violence we see on Friday and Saturday nights is unacceptable.
And some of the proposed NSW laws may help reduce violence. By sending people home early, lockouts most likely will reduce the number of drunken punch-ups. It worked in the Newcastle CBD, where assaults have fallen by more than 30 per cent since 2008. But at the same time, Newcastle is a lot smaller than Sydney. As Lord Mayor Clover Moore has pointed out, a lock out may just move violence to new postcodes.
Closing bottle shops and stopping new premises opening might also help. Whatever you think of these moves (and personally, I sometimes enjoy a very early morning beer), they’ve at least been mulled for some time and trialled in other parts of the state.
It’s the mandatory minimum sentences for "one punch" deaths, assault occasioning actual bodily harm, reckless grievous bodily harm, affray and sexual assault that reek of a knee-jerk reaction.
It doesn’t take much effort to imagine situations in which the new laws, which could be in place by Saturday week, could result in terrible injustices in which the punishment does not fit the crime. All the offence of affray, for example, requires, is for two or more people to threaten unlawful violence. Under the new regime, a group of 18-year-olds out for a birthday party might only be a bit of argy bargy and one policeman separated from four years in prison.
One size most certainly does not fit all when it comes to crime. A judge can weigh factors like severity, elements of self-defence, mental state and intent. A piece of legislation cannot. It’s inevitable that people who most of us would not understand to be criminals will spend years in jail under these laws.
New South Wales’ own Attorney General, Greg Smith, has himself previously argued a four-fold case against mandatory minimums: They do not reduce crime, they reduce the incentive to plead guilty, people go to prison for longer and cost the taxpayer more, and, as I’ve outlined, they’re unfair.
In the last few months, many of us have looked across the border at Queensland’s 25 year minimum terms for bikies with horror. Now the same thing is happening here, with a similar lack of thought in response to a similar panic.
A courageous stance against “alcohol-fuelled violence” would involve taking the time to carefully craft legislation that neither pandered to the alcohol lobby nor the tabloid press. It would be brave for Barry O’Farrell to focus attention on domestic violence, which is far more common than “coward punches.” Instead, the NSW government is lashing out blindly, just like the men it is trying to stop.