Make no mistake: Victoria’s new law bail laws undermine your human rights and will do nothing to repeat incidents like the Bourke St massacre. They undermine your right to be presumed innocent before proven guilty at trial. Police can usually only apply to lock you up if they can prove that you are too dangerous to release on bail before trial. Now you will be presumed to be too dangerous to release if you are suspected of various kinds of violent offences, unless you can show otherwise. But this treats suspects as guilty before proven innocent. It means innocents could be imprisoned before trial for crimes they did not commit. This is profoundly useless and wrong.
Famously, Lindy and Michael Chamberlain were wrongly found guilty of murdering their baby daughter, Azaria, in 1980. After Lindy spent 4 years in prison, they were vindicated after their daughter’s jacket was in a dingo lair. They are not alone—every year 62,400 Australians have the charges against them dropped and 23,400 Australians are acquitted at trial. Innocent Australians like you could land in jail if bail laws are tightened.
Jail is no place for innocent people, or for that matter low-level offenders. People in jail lose their job and valuable skills. Their ties to friends, family and the community weaken. They socialise with criminals and could exposed to drugs. They can emerge from jail more dangerous than ever. That’s why bail should only be refused if police prove that you are a danger to the community. The evidence of guilt must be strong, the crime must be serious, and you must have a serious criminal record or be a flight risk. Jailing people who don’t meet that standard could increase crime.
As for the Bourke Street killer whose case prompted these reforms, it’s difficult to see how anyone could have predicted what he would go on to do after being bailed. He was no more than an alleged small-time crook charged with numerous dangerous driving charges, breaking a car windscreen, an assault, and car theft. Imprisoning more alleged small-time crooks because of the miniscule chance that one of them might commit an act of mass violence is senseless. Further, these reforms could result in imprisoning people who commit crimes of passion, for example, who are not obvious dangers to the public after they have calmed down and separated from the victim.
Advocates for bail restrictions, and for that matter mandatory sentences, also overlook that jail can prevent people from rehabilitating. For example, young Sudanese-Australian offenders have successfully rehabilitated and found work in the community. Further, the Victorian Ombudsman has found that rehabilitation programs makes reoffending less likely. Moreover, more than half of prisoners do not reoffend after being released. Not all offenders are lost causes, but these reforms unjustly treat them all alike.
Bail restrictions or mandatory sentences also don’t make sense because they don’t deter crime. That’s because the odds of being caught are very low, and those who commit crimes of passion are unlikely to care. Victoria’s prison population increased by 66.9% after lengthier sentences and parole restrictions were imposed in the last decade, yet crime still increased. Canada and Sweden’s crime rates are far lower than the US, which has mandatory sentencing and the highest incarceration rate in the world. One study indicates that several American States have seen crime rates drop despite reducing their prison populations. Prisons exist to house people who cannot be safely released into the public, not to deter crime.
The best way to fight crime is to increase employment. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, one-quarter of Australians aged 15-24 who are not undergoing a full-time educational course are unemployed. That’s about 359,700 people. Studies repeatedly show that career criminals are far more likely to be unemployed, undereducated, and disadvantaged. That’s because the black market lets them earn money without a proper job. Indeed, two Apex Gang members recently admitted that they committed crimes to earn money. Promoting legal employment is the solution.
Cutting red tape that prevents businesses from hiring unskilled employees will help. For example, employers must pay unskilled people the same minimum wage even if they have no prior experience. This makes hiring a skilled worker even more attractive than hiring an unskilled worker. Further, employers are often legally required to hire workers who have completed training courses because of licensing schemes. As of 2008, more than 800 licensing schemes for manual trades existed nation-wide, and 400 schemes were in Victoria. Uber had to wage a legal battle just to operate in Australia and retain thousands of drivers, including veterans. Getting rid of these legal barriers to employment will reduce crime.
The presumption of bail and discretionary sentencing must be retained to protect innocent people and low-level offenders from unjust, unnecessary, and excessive punishment. Crime would be reduced, however, if we cut red tape, and empower young people to get employment.
Vladimir “Zeev” Vinokurov is a solicitor.