Sentencing is an often misunderstood part of the criminal justice process. The Queensland Sentencing Advisory Council (QSAC) provides independent research and advice, seeks public views and promotes community understanding of sentencing matters. In essence, it attempts to dismiss myths about sentencing and provide statistics of sentencing trends.
The council comprises ten members who are legal experts and community advocates with extensive experience in criminal law, domestic and family violence, victims of crime, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander justice issues and youth justice. After attending the council meeting on Monday, I had the pleasure of working with the administration team on Wednesday morning. The primary work was tying up loose ends from the meeting such as finding documents that had been mentioned by the council that they thought should be viewed. After managing to find what we were looking for I had the opportunity to attend a presentation given by Policy Manager, Marni Manning, about the current relevance of the Fitzgerald Inquiry. Through my studies I knew of the Fitzgerald Inquiry and the widespread corruption that it had unearthed. It also made a number of recommendations for ensuring that such corruption didn’t happen again. Marni’s presentation was about the continued importance of meeting these reformed guidelines.
Two things struck me during the presentation. Firstly, there was much about the Fitzgerald Inquiry that I hadn’t known. While I knew of it and its importance, the Inquiry can often be mentioned as a footnote in my courses, so seeing it as a living, breathing, still relevant document was surprising. I hadn’t grasped just how far-reaching, detailed and ground-breaking the Inquiry was. Secondly, the talk was given for other Department of Justice and Attorney-General (DJAG) staff, and was well attended. As someone who values opportunities to learn on a number of topics, I found it exciting to know that DJAG shares that value. It also highlights that DJAG places importance on the various departments working together and educating each other. Given the multi-disciplinary nature of sentencing, combining law and social science, this multifaceted approach is exceptionally important.
On Judge for Yourself you get to review evidence – including dramatised footage from the scene of an offence and the courtroom – and then pass a sentence. As you make your way through, you’ll get hints and guidance on the things judges and magistrates have to consider by law when they pass a sentence.
The Queensland Sentencing Advisory Council is running free Judge for Yourself community sessions across the state during June and July 2017. Full details of locations and registration are available on the council’s website.
In the afternoon I worked with the communications and media team. A key aspect of QSAC’s role is to educate and engage with the public, so the communications team were keen to gain my opinion on their website and how to reach university students. The role of the communications team is to try and engage the public as much as possible through events and the council’s website. After helping with the website, the communications team walked me through some of the events, including the interactive website, Judge for Yourself that they had been planning for Law Week. I knew that a lot of effort went into event planning but it isn’t until you’ve worked with a communications team that you realise how much. There are so many facets that need to be considered; where to advertise, how to advertise, how to reach the intended audience. Exposure to this area was something I likely wouldn’t have received during my university studies, so it was a real eye opener.
The policy team.
My second day at QSAC was first spent with the policy team.
Currently the team is researching the classification of child exploitation material (CEM) for sentencing purposes. To do this, QSAC needs to have a full understanding of who investigates CEM and the legal infrastructure around this. So to help the team I found a number of cases and searched through reports and submissions to Parliament to gain an understanding of the current framework. Thankfully all of my research assignments for university came in handy here. Being able to quickly find and search through documents is certainty a skill that takes practice to master, and the policy team were masters of it. QSAC’s role also involves supplying research to government so that they can make informed decisions on sentencing matters.
The research team.
Sentencing can often be used as a hot topic in politics. Judges are seen as too lenient, people overestimate the amount of crime out there and the list of concerns is endless. The policy team needs to research the legislative structure of how crimes are investigated and the framework around how those crimes are sentenced, seeing beyond the media portrayal. An issue that I have often come up against in my studies is the problem of ‘legalese’; that statutes and explanations by lawyers can often be too technical for most people to understand. In areas such as sentencing this can be an acute issue because everyone can see the effects of sentencing but not necessarily have access to the processes behind it. So it is the policy team’s role to investigate those processes and be able to communicate it to the other members of the QSAC secretariat, and ultimately non-legally trained individuals, so they can understand what is currently occurring and problems that need to be addressed.
In the afternoon I worked with the research team. Their primary task is to find statistics on how various crimes are sentenced as well as the demographic patterns in the types of people sentenced. Given that few other organisations do this, the research team’s role is particularly important. To illustrate some of the research team’s work QSAC produces a Sentencing Spotlight series which looks at the sentencing trends and data of different crimes. They have so far produced spotlights on murder, manslaughter (often sensationalised crimes) and CEM offences and you may be surprised by some of the data. Having a social science background (along with my law degree I study criminology and psychology), I have studied a number of statistics courses. However from my time working with the research team, I saw statistics in a new light. Here was real data; trends to be discovered and questions to be answered. Seeing something in practice, compared to information given in a lecture hall, is a very different experience. I would encourage all students to try and gain as much experience as possible, even in areas you may not think you would be able to work in. I’ve always been very focused on my legal studies, so finding a role that involves both law and my social science knowledge was a real eye opener.
My main take away message from my time at the Sentencing Advisory Council would be to look beyond the media hype and think critically about all areas of our criminal justice system.
My main take away message from my time at QSAC would be to look beyond the media hype and think critically about all areas of our criminal justice system. Yes, sentencing isn’t perfect, but there are groups looking to improve it, through research and data, not just media reports. Sentencing isn’t the glamorous part of the criminal justice system; there are many different considerations to be balanced and not all of them become generally available. The work QSAC is crucial, both for those involved with the criminal justice system and us as everyday people. If we want to change something about our criminal justice system it is important to fully understand issues and concerns. That’s where QSAC comes in. It works hard to inform everyone through data and explain legislation in a comprehensible way. Bringing together some of the best minds in the criminal justice system, representing a number of stakeholders, is key to having a fair, just, and capable criminal justice system. So, take advantage of organisations like QSAC and engage with them. They want to engage with you, but with facts, not spin.
For more information about QSAC, its current consultation activities and research, visit www.sentencingcouncil.qld.gov.au.