Baseline Sentencing

July 7, 2014

The Victorian Government is currently seeking to amend current sentencing requirements through the introduction of the Sentencing Amendment (Baseline Sentences) Bill 2014 (“the Bill”). The Bill is designed to further deter persons from committing a wide range of crimes, thereby enhancing community safety. The Victorian Government has acknowledged that ‘sentences for a number of crimes are out of step with community expectations’ and intends that the amendments, if enacted, will work toward correcting this discrepancy.

The Bill introduces a different way of thinking towards sentencing, replacing maximum sentences with the notion of baseline sentences. Whilst the maximum sentence indicates the suggested penalty for the worst instances of a crime, the baseline sentence provides the Court with an indication of the common or mid-range sentence for a crime.

Maximum sentencing penalties currently apply in Victoria but are often only imposed in the most severe cases. However, if passed, these amendments will set new and accurate guideposts for judges to consider when sentencing. It is our understanding that the Victorian Government intends to see half of the sentences imposed fall below the baseline number, with the other half rising above the baseline sentence. The new baseline sentences are ‘unashamedly higher than the current median sentences.’ For example, at present the maximum sentence for murder is 25 years imprisonment. If the Bill is enacted, this penalty (25 years) will become the baseline sentence. Therefore, if the amendments play out as Government intends, half of the imposed sentences will sit above the baseline, raising the average sentence for murder. The changes will also require Courts to state reasons for placing the offence at, above or below the baseline sentence.[1]  This sentence will not apply to offences performed by anyone under the age of eighteen, nor will it apply for offences determined summarily.

Specifically, the Bill will:

  • Amend the Sentencing Act 1991 to provide baseline sentences for indictable offences
  • Amend the Crimes Act 1958 to fix baseline sentences for—
    • Murder:  25 years imprisonment;
    • Incest with a person’s own child, their de facto spouse’s child or other lineal descendant or step-child, that child being under 18 years of age: 10 years imprisonment;
    • sexual penetration of a child under 12 years of age: 10 years imprisonment;
    • persistent sexual abuse of a child under 16 years of age: 10 years imprisonment;
    • culpable driving causing death: 9 years imprisonment; and
    • Amend the Drugs, Poisons and Controlled Substances Act 1981 providing a baseline sentence of 14 years imprisonment for trafficking a large commercial quantity of a drug(s) of dependence.[2]

Controversy surrounds this new initiative. Marilyn Warren CJ and Michael Rozenes CJ have not raised concerns regarding the harshness of sentences under the proposed changes. Rather, they are concerned about increased costs. In an article appearing in the Herald Sun that received further comments in the Age, the Judges were quoted as saying ‘baseline sentencing will cost the community a fortune: fewer guilty pleas leading to more trials, more complex sentencing leading to longer trials, more and longer prison sentences leading to the need for more prisons’[3] Cases may also take longer to resolve.[4]

Although it presents some troublesome side affects, this new regime may be beneficial for the community if those who commit indictable offences are imprisoned for longer periods of time. Only time will tell if baseline sentencing effectively serves Parliament’s original intentions and serves as an advantage to the community.

[1] Sentencing Amendment (Baseline Sentences) Bill 2014, EXPLANATORY MEMORANDUM.
[2] Ibid.
[3] The Age article: Baseline sentencing plan leaves Herald Sun wondering if it’s such a good idea after all.
[4] Ibid.

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