Concerns over new anti-violence laws in NSW

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Legal experts are concerned new one-punch law changes may cause a spike in the number of Indigenous people imprisoned in New South Wales.

(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)

Legal experts have raised concerns about the New South Wales government's plans for tackling alcohol-fuelled violence.

New laws with a range of tougher penalties have been rushed through the state parliament.

As Sacha Payne reports, one particular concern is that the plans will result in a large increase in the number of Indigenous people jailed.

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New South Wales Premier Barry O'Farrell and his cabinet have prepared a suite of measures aimed to reduce incidents like the one-punch attacks responsible for the recent deaths of two Sydney teenagers.

Mandatory minimum sentence laws are part of a large package of reforms including 1.30 am lockouts and 3 am last drinks in the CBD entertainment precinct of Sydney.

Also included are the ability to impose tougher licence conditions on venues deemed to be dangerous, and restrictions on alcohol shots after midnight.

An offence covering intentional hitting that cause death will be created, with an eight-year minimum prison sentence if the accused was intoxicated or on drugs at the time.

The maximum sentence for the offence will be 25 years.

But it's amendments to other legislation that are causing concern in some quarters.

On-the-spot fines for public order matters such as offensive conduct or language will more than double, to $500.

The fine for failing to move on when intoxicated when asked by a police officer will rise from $200 to $1,100.

Senior lecturer at the University of Wollongong's School of Law Julia Quilter says these changes are certain to result in more Indigenous people being jailed.

"Currently, those have small on-the-spot fine penalties, but they are mooted to increase by up to something like $500, which is a significant increase. They may have the flow-on effects ultimately, where someone fails to pay a fine, of going back into jail."

Dr Quilter says she's also concerned about the effects of new penalties at the lower end of drunken violence offences.

Chief legal officer of the Aboriginal Legal Service in New South Wales, John McKenzie, is also concerned about the new penalties.

He says increases in fines for some drunken violence offences will result in people who are unable to pay, being jailed.

Mr McKenzie says Indigenous offenders are also likely to be caught up by the introduction of mandatory minumum jail sentences after convictions on some less serious assault charges.

He says one charge - assault occasioning actual bodily harm - could include assault that results in only light bruising or a slight breaking of the skin and small amount of bleeding.

And he says another charge - assault police - may include a swing of the fist that makes no contact at all.

"Those two offences alone, and there is a third one, and that is the charge of affray for which a minimum jail sentence now will be four years, those three in combination have the very real likelihood in our estimation of putting in jail an additional 1,000 Aboriginal prisoners each year as this regime goes on, and that's based on the number of Aboriginal clients we have who face those charges each year."

John McKenzie says the anomoly the new laws create is that someone who is not drunk and goes about a planned assault of a person could receive a lesser penalty than someone who is drunk and lashes out during a heated moment.

He says that will have a devastating impact on Aboriginal communities and families at a time when strategies are being sought to reduce the rate of Indigenous incarceration.

"Aboriginal prisoners make up approximately one quarter of all our adult prisoners and approximately one half of all our juvenile prisoners in New South Wales. This measure of course does not relate to the juveniles, so I'll leave that out. But in relation to the adults these mandatory minimum jail sentences are going to just make that very disturbing and tragic figure, as it is at the moment, a hell of a lot worse and that is just a very bad way for our society to go."

Julia Quilter at the University of Wollongong's School of Law says the amendments in question will also be costly to New South Wales taxpayers.

She says there'll be a huge increase in costs to the justice system through longer trials because fewer offenders will enter early guilty pleas.

And she says there will also be increased costs for keeping more people in prison, for longer periods.

Dr Quilter says there are other ways of tackling drunken violence.

"In my view the government was on the right track when it first approached this problem back after the death of Thomas Kelly by introducing a multi-faceted and nuanced response to alcohol violence by looking at things like public transport, by looking at education programs, by looking at licensing regimes. Now some of those things are in the model that has been announced by the Premier, but I think that's the area where the government needs to continue its important work."

But the New South Wales Premier, Barry O'Farrell, has rejected the criticism of his government's approach to curbing alcohol-fuelled violence.

And he denies it will see a spike in the number of Indigenous people imprisoned.

"I don't believe that's the case. But I do know that the legal profession, in particular lawyers, are campaigning against it. I'm not surprised that there will be claims made but this is a measured response to a very serious problem. Not just in Sydney's CBD, but across the state. Having spent some time during the past week, both in suburban and country areas, it's clear that alcohol-fuelled and drug-fuelled violence is not unique to the Sydney CBD entertainment precinct."

Mr O'Farrell says he's confident his government will be seen to have taken an appropriate response to a serious problem.

Source SBS, World News Australia

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