Suspended Sentences

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I’m a big believer that the church has a responsibility at the right time to speak into matters of public political debate. We do this since we’re a part of the community, just as others are and our voice represents a significant segment of the population. But more than that we presume to know the mind of the Creator on a number of issues (as far as He has revealed it to us in the Scriptures) and to speak His words to the Creation is a good and loving thing to do as our nation struggles on with the immense task of making laws to promote the good and punish wrongdoing. Christians ought to therefore be speaking into these debates in order to support the God-ordained role of government (Romans 13:1-5). At times that voice needs to be one of criticism and a good example is a recent intervention by John Harrower, the Bishop of Tasmania:

Bishop John Harrower
Bishop John Harrower

One of Tasmania’s leading religious leaders has used his Easter message to criticise one of the new Government’s key reforms.

The Anglican Bishop John Harrower has urged the government not to scrap suspended sentences, saying there is too much focus on locking up criminals rather than rehabilitating them.

Reverend Harrower today urged the congregation at St. David’s Cathedral to show compassion and love towards all.

It is a sentiment he wants to see filter through the state’s prison system.

“I think that sometimes the attitude you know lock them up and throw away the key, that’s totally destructive not just of the individual but of ourselves as a community,” Right Reverend John Harrower said.

The Anglican Bishop visited Risdon prison on Wednesday and says inmates revealed their struggles.

“What also struck me some of the stories of the great difficulty that the prisoners have when they reintegrate into society,” he said.

Tasmania has one of the highest recidivism rates in the nation.

But the Attorney-General Vanessa Goodwin says suspended sentences are a slap on the wrist, and the government intends to go ahead with it’s plan to scrap them.

She says the government is confident there are other alternatives and will consult the Sentencing Advisory Council.

gavelThis issue has been rumbling away in Tasmania for quite a while,

Tasmania’s new Attorney-General and Justice Minister is standing by the Liberal Government’s plans to scrap suspended sentences, despite a backlash from the legal fraternity.

Vanessa Goodwin has taken part in a Law Society debate on the issue, amid concerns Risdon Prison near Hobart is already at capacity.

In her research, the University of Canberra’s Lorana Bartels says she has found suspended sentences are an effective deterrent.

“Offenders who are on a wholly suspended sentence were 20 per cent less likely to reoffend than an offender who’d been sent to prison,” she said.

The Attorney-General says she will consult the Sentencing Advisory Council about alternatives like home detention, deferred sentencing and therapeutic options.

But Ms Goodwin is still committed to abolishing suspended sentences.

“We haven’t consulted directly with the judiciary on this but this is a clear policy of ours which we took to the election,” said Ms Goodwin.

“It was very clearly one of our signature policies and other states have in fact gone down this path and other countries, New Zealand, so we’re very clear about what our intention is.”

She says suspended sentences will be phased out over the next four years.

see also Sentencing changes likely to worsen prison overcrowding and Law Reform Institute questions Lib plan.

Now why is this an issue in which the good bishop has intervened? Why, in general, would I urge Christians to be a little “softer” (as some might understand it) on this issue?

Jail Cell With Closed Door And Bunch Of KeysSimply put, because mercy triumps over justice (James 2:12-13). James’ point is clear. We have been treated with mercy and a “law that gives freedom”, we know that it works to effect positive change in our lives, and yet we find ourselves (more often than not, without really having given it much thought) simply reverting to a “justice only” model when it comes to the question of how to deal with criminals.

Even more simply put, we want one rule for ourselves and another for others.

The answer to switch our thinking is to remember the gospel. The gospel is, in the terms that this whole debate is framed in, a rehabilitative suspended sentence. Yes, I know the analogy is frayed at the edges but let’s not have that stop us getting the point.

Forgiveness from God is the setting aside of a sentence that all would acknowledge we should fairly receive. So at the outset we need to recognise that the gospel is in one regard instrinsically unfair. This is a favourite little hobby horse of mine so let me take a brief canter. The last thing any of us want is for God to be fair to us. Getting a fair deal from God is not going to be good news. All have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory (Rom 3:23) and the wages of that sin is death (Rom 6:23). Moreover, we are acutely aware that eternal punishments established in God’s courtroom are to be feared far more than anything a magistrate (upright or not) can hand down (Luke 12:5). We do not want God to be fair! We want gross unfairness applied to us; anything less and we are gone. More than this, we ought to live and breathe the mercy and forgiveness we have received (Luke 6:37-38) from the gracious hand of God.

But we’re not like this. The same sin that requires forgiveness also (and how ironic this is) bends us towards a harsh legalism and understanding of justice.

Back in 2011, it was the Herald Sun that helped Ted Baillieu’s new government (Attorney-General, Robert Clark) to consult the Victorian public about sentencing. The paper published, online and in hard copy, the government’s “My Views” Sentencing Survey, and encouraged its readers to take part.

It was no surprise to anyone that most survey participants dished out sentences, on the basis of a few lines of information, far more severe than those that would have been handed down by real-life judges. But it certainly provided excellent ammunition to Robert Clark’s “baseline sentencing” campaign.

Of course, the Herald Sun isn’t alone. Virtually every popular newspaper, talkback radio host and TV current affairs show in the English-speaking world plays back to readers, listeners and viewers their own “commonsense” view that tougher penalties will lead to less crime.

The fact that the hard evidence doesn’t support that conclusion is hardly ever reported – not, that is, without a sneer.

Nor is research that shows that the more people know about an individual case, the less likely they are to think that the judge got it wrong. A study of 700 Tasmanian jurors in 2011 found that most of them believed, in general, that judges were too lenient.

But asked about the particular case they’d been closely involved in, 90 per cent said that the judge’s sentence had been “very” or “fairly” appropriate.

The whole article is well worth going through.

Politically it makes good sense for the Tasmanian Liberal Party to pursue this policy. They’re tapping into something in each one of us. But the well they’ve drilled down to is tainted. None of us would actually want to drink from the water ourselves.

In His death on our behalf the Lord Jesus Christ sets aside the sentence due to us for our crimes against Him and the Father who sent Him. We plead for mercy, not justice, and we receive it in abundance. But more than that we then enter into a process of rehabilitation as He pours out His Spirit upon us and makes us more and more like Him every day (1Cor. 6:11). We used to live another way, but now we are a new creation (2Cor. 5:17).

And this process exists in both the “spiritual” and “secular” arenas. There are Christians who work with offenders to help them make better choices. For many who are incarcerated it provides a wake-up call but there are often few opportunities for that realisation to be acted upon. Organisations like the Prison Fellowship (and particularly in Tasmania) work long and hard to communicate the gospel to prisoners.

And it works. We have a growing ministry here in Sydney through the umbrella of Break the Cycle Glenquarie. Our chaplain has a specific remit towards reducing recidivism and we have a number of wonderful success stories.

Mark became involved in Break the Cycle through meeting [the chaplain] Stu through Anglicare, attending a Bible study called WayOut. When Mark went to prison over Christmas and New Year, Stu offered support at courtside, and helping consult with the magistrate, to demonstrate the support that Mark would have if he was released.

The services at Break the Cycle are also Work Development Order approved, meaning that debts that Mark has accrued through court fees and offences can be deducted through the volunteer work that he does at Break the Cycle.

Other services include anger management courses and the Men’s Shed.

Like Stu, I’ve also gone to court, made representations to magistrates and judges, and seen them commute sentences on the basis that a client has shown positive engagement in our services. I can’t begin to describe the joy in sitting next to someone who 6 months previously thought the solution to everything was solved through his fist, now a graduate of our anger management program and seeing, for the first time, a better way forward. And it’s not just he and I that are pleased. The magistrate doesn’t like locking people away when there are better solutions and the legal aid advocates think we’re (I would suggest quite literally)  a godsend.

That’s not to say that there aren’t instances where someone won’t engage. If a criminal doesn’t want to change then no amount of effort will really make a difference. But there are plenty of men and women who do want a second chance, even if it takes a bit of persuasion at the start. There are many, many who are convicted of crimes If we as Christians cannot advocate for people who need exactly what we have already received then why would anybody else?

What it also means is that we need to lobby for better funding of programs that assist those on suspended sentences, community service orders and the like. It can cost up to $200,000 a year to incarcerate someone which means (as some of the above articles note) that a productive program of rehabilitation is always going to be cheaper for the government. We may not be locking someone up and throwing away the key but we could do it with some of our chequebooks. As I write this at my church office I conservatively estimate that there’s about half a million dollars of non-incarceration walking around our campus; men who would very likely be in jail were they not now engaged in far more positive activity. Yet we currently receive nothing from the state government in support of this work. The cost of one year’s prison would more than adequately fund both my chaplain and a host of support costs.

Tasmania’s new government could do better on this issue. Far better. But let’s not kid ourselves that we Christians could do far better too, showing mercy just as we have been shown mercy and seeing that mercy triumph in people’s lives far more than simple justice does.

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Nigel Poore

    I sort of have to disagree with the soft approach. Spare the rod and spoil the child. I know from my criminal experience that had I not been caught and had the authorities not come down hard on me I would have been an even bigger criminal. I needed the shock treatment.

  2. David Ould

    hi Nigel.

    Thanks so much for commenting and for being honest about your past. Glad that you responded in the right way to your experiences.
    In part I agree with you – when the law catches up witha criminal there is often a “shock treatment” that jars them into wanting to do better but I fear that many do not have the resolve that you appear to have and often a harsh response only serves to harden resolve rather than soften the conscience.

    Do you think that if there had been good organisations working with you through the criminal system do you think you might have got even better outcomes?

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