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Justice advocates urge NT to rethink bail law changes

Giovanni Torre -

Proposed new bail laws announced by Northern Territory Chief Minister Natasha Fyles last week would be a "massive backward step", a major justice group has warned.

On Tuesday the Justice Reform Initiative said the proposed changes would worsen rather than improve community safety in the Territory.

The group's executive director Mindy Sotiri said the announcement of the new “backward bail laws”, which set the presumption against bail for certain offences, was "disappointing and would only lead to more crime".

“There is no evidence that threatening harsher penalties has any impact when it comes to reducing crime. Restricting access to bail simply increases the numbers of people cycling  through the prison system which we know does nothing to address the drivers of offending. In fact, it makes things worse,” Dr Sotiri said.

Chief Minister Fyles said last week urgent bail legislation will be introduced to parliament which will see a new presumption against bail for violent offences involving a weapon.

There will also be a presumption against bail for co-offenders who participate in violent offences involving a weapon, even if they do not possess the weapon themselves.

The Chief Minister said the changes will apply to youth as well as adults.

“Enough is enough – if you are charged with a violent offence involving a weapon – it is expected that you will sit on remand and out of the community until your case is heard," she said.

“This is just one of many initiatives announced by the Territory Labor Government to tackle and deter violent offending – with more announcements imminent."

Justice Reform Initiative patron Richard Coates said the Victorian government was currently repealing the same type of laws which were introduced after the Bourke Street rampage because they had been "so counter-productive".

“We only need to look at what transpired in Victoria, after similar moves to tighten bail laws were introduced in the wake of the Bourke Street Mall rampage that claimed the lives of six people,” Mr Coates said.

“With the benefit of hindsight, the new laws had significant unintended consequences, sending the prison population soaring unnecessarily and for no result.

“The main impact was to increase the number of women in prison, many charged with lower level offences, who had been unable to get a timely hearing or were struggling to meet conditions for bail release, such as stable housing.

“The Victorian Government is now under pressure to wind back these contentious – and costly – laws. We would have done well to learn from this in the Territory.”

Dr Sotiri said there is nothing to indicate reason the Territory would not suffer the same fate as Victoria under similar laws.

“While tragic events can understandably prompt community outcry, and a call for consequences, we need to focus on the evidence about what actually works to build community safety,” Dr Sotiri said. 

“Knee-jerk policy responses like this serve nobody.  These changes will increase the numbers of people in prison who shouldn’t be there, and will increase the likelihood of further crime being committed.”

NT Attorney General and Minister for Justice Chansey Paech told National Indigenous Times that the new bail laws respond to "widespread community concerns and expectations" about violent incidents across the Northern Territory.

"Territorians have called for action and we have responded because we refuse to let knife crimes become the norm," he said.

“The Territory Labor Government knows these new laws are not a panacea for all crimes, which is why we are rolling out a raft of justice reforms that are workable, consistent and sustainable. For example, our Aboriginal Justice Agreement promotes strong leadership and a shared commitment to achieving change such as reducing offending and imprisonment. It is founded on research, evidence and the views and experiences of Territorians.

“Reforms aligned with the Agreement include alternatives to custody centres, community courts that enable Aboriginal people to assert leadership, restore law and order and create safer communities by holding people in their community to account; and strengthening law and justice groups to model and reinforce the kinds of behaviours Aboriginal people want to adopt.”

The Justice Reform Initiative is a multi-partisan alliance supported by more than 120 eminent Australians, including respected Aboriginal leaders, two former Governors-General, former Members of Parliament from all sides of politics, academics, senior former judges - including High Court judges, and others who have call for an end to Australia’s "dangerously high reliance on jails".

The Initiative is calling for governments around Australia to move away from the "entrenched reliance on incarceration as the mainstay of the criminal justice system" and adopt an evidence-based approach to deliver better results for taxpayers, communities and people in the criminal justice system.


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