SENTENCING AMENDMENT (EMERGENCY WORKERS) BILL 2014
Written on the 16 September 2014
Debate resumed from 21 August; motion of Hon. G. K. RICH-PHILLIPS (Assistant Treasurer).
Mr TEE (Eastern Metropolitan) -- It is great that this bill has come before the house as speedily as it has. The opposition does not oppose the Sentencing Amendment (Emergency Workers) Bill 2014.It is our view that the bill will not achieve an enormous amount, and it is not without some concerns and trepidation that we approach it. This is again an opportunity to highlight the work that is done by our emergency workers. In the government's usual kind of clunky, clumsy way, the bill attempts to show solidarity or support to the community by supporting our emergency workers, who are indeed well regarded by the community. But the truth is that, as with most things the government does, this clumsy attempt would be reasonably ineffectual.
Mr D. R. J. O'Brien interjected.Mr TEE -- I pick up that objection. If you want to look at the disaster this government has had when it comes to issues of violence and of crime, you only have to look at the track record of this government when it comes to crime.
Mr D. R. J. O'Brien -- Are you serious about that?Mr TEE -- Absolutely. Under this government you should hang your head in shame.
Under this government crimes against the person are up by 32 per cent -- 32 per cent, imagine that.Mr D. R. J. O'Brien interjected.
Mr TEE -- I take up that interjection, the suggestion being that somehow this is a good thing -- as those opposite yell out -- and it is a sign of success that crimes against the person have gone up by 32 per cent. If that is how they measure success, that is not the measure. That is not the measure out there in the community. It is not a measure of success when crime against the property, crime against the person, drug offences, other crime and total crime is all going up under your watch. That is this government's record, that is its legacy, that is what it is taking to the people. After nearly four years Victoria is less safe than it was when this government was elected. In Victoria now it is more dangerous to be on the streets than when they were elected.They have a Victoria where, instead of catching criminals, police are guarding our prisoners.Mr D. R. J. O'Brien interjected.
Mr TEE -- No, what I am saying is if you had police on the beat, where they should be, you would have less crime because you would have a greater deterrence. Instead, what happens is there is no police presence because the police are all at police lockups babysitting, feeding and looking after prisoners.Ms Crozier interjected.
Mr TEE -- Ms Crozier says that is not true, that that is not the evidence.
The evidence given to the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee (PAEC) hearing by the Chief Commission of Police is that police are spending their time looking after prisoners in police cells. That is the evidence of the police force itself. That is not coming from the opposition, and they can criticise it all they like. That is what members of the police force are saying. If you do not accept the evidence of the police at the PAEC hearing, you should go and have a talk to them. But that is what they are telling the public; that is what the public is hearing. Let me tell members opposite that it would resonate particularly well out there in the community if the public heard them criticising and talking down what the police are saying. The community has a fair degree of respect for our emergency service workers. They have a fair degree of respect for our ambulance paramedics, and they see the way that this government has treated the people we rely on when we are at our most vulnerable, whether it is nurses, ambulance paramedics, firefighters or police. When our house is under threat, when there is a fire next door, we rely -- --
Mr Finn interjected.
Mr TEE -- They are there for us, Mr Finn, but this government is not there for them. This government is not there for our emergency service workers.The bill is a clunky, terrible attempt by the government to pretend to be doing something. It knows that its complete disregard of our emergency workers is coming back to roost, because it has no credibility when it comes to the community.
Ms Crozier -- You are just so out of touch.Mr TEE -- Ms Crozier talks about being out of touch. I remind her that for crimes against the person there is a 32 per cent increase, and for crime against property, it is 6.2 per cent.
Ms Crozier -- Emergency workers are seeing this as action.Mr TEE -- Our emergency workers are the ones who have to deal with these realities. The emergency workers are the ones who have to manage the escalating crime that has come under this government's watch. Our streets are not safe, and our police officers are sitting in police cells instead of being out on the beat. We do not oppose this bill, nor do we do what I am sure those opposite will do -- that is, romanticise what they are doing, putting some kind of gloss over what they are doing and putting on the soft lens in terms of what this bill will achieve. This bill will not achieve the kinds of glossy things they are going to talk about. This bill will not make our streets safer, this bill will not make sure that our ambulance paramedics get a fair return or are safer when they go to a hospital emergency.
Mr Finn -- On a point of order, Acting President, whilst Mr Tee has made the odd reference to some provisions of the bill, he seems to be straying into areas that are not related to this bill in any way, shape or form. On the grounds of relevance, I ask you to bring him back to the bill.Mr TEE -- On the point of order, Acting President, the second reading of the bill is very clear. The second reading talks about the bill providing statutory sentences, or sentences for offences against emergency workers on duty.
The ACTING PRESIDENT (Mr Eideh) -- Order! As Mr Tee is the lead speaker, and this is important legislation, he should stick to the bill.Mr Finn interjected.
Mr TEE -- You do not want to hear what is happening out in the real world.Do not try to quieten me down. Do not try to stop me from putting on the record exactly what your government is doing out there -- whether it is to emergency workers or to Victorian families.
Mr Finn -- How about talking about the bill?
Mr TEE -- I am talking about the bill. Because of this government's inaction, the bill requires special measures to try to keep our emergency service workers safe. It is about ambulance paramedics not getting beaten up when they go to a hospital due to the level of crime that is being generated by this government by its inaction. This government has ripped over $100 million from the police force. This government has failed -- after how many years now? -- to resolve the pay dispute with ambulance officers, and it has overseen an 18 per cent increase in crime across the state.
It has introduced this bill as some sort of a pretence that it is actually tough on crime or that it actually cares about our emergency service workers.
Frankly, it just does not wash. It does not pass any test of credibility or logic, and it is not going to wash out there. It is not going to make any difference because people out there know the government does not care about nurses. It does not care about the police force. It does not care about ambulance paramedics, otherwise it would have sorted out the issue with the ambulance paramedics years ago. It would have made sure that they had a decent wage to take home so that they could feed, clothe and look after their families.Mr Finn -- On a point of order, Acting President, once again on the grounds of relevance. You may care to point out to me and perhaps to the house how Mr Tee is being relevant by referring to a wages dispute which has absolutely nothing at all to do with the bill we are discussing tonight.
Mr TEE -- On the point of order, Acting President, the bill is quite broad in terms of emergency workers, the role that they play and the protections that are given to them. Quite clearly part of the bill goes to the entitlements of emergency workers.The ACTING PRESIDENT (Mr Eideh) -- Order! Mr Tee to continue on the bill.
Mr TEE -- Our concern with the bill is that we are not convinced it is going to make an enormous difference to the crime wave that has beset the community as a result of this government's inaction. We are not convinced there will be more arrests, as many of the assaults directed towards our ambulance paramedics, in particular, are from people who are affected by drugs, alcohol or mental illness. We are not convinced that the provisions of this bill are going to make any difference to our emergency service workers on the ground.As I said, we do not oppose the bill because we support our emergency workers, unlike those opposite. We hear regularly of the assaults on our police officers. We hear regularly of assaults against our emergency workers in hospitals, against nurses and doctors and against paramedics. It is very clear that violence in emergency departments is under-reported and is unconscionable. It is very difficult for police to make an arrest when they are out guarding prisoners in cells, prisoners who should not be there. It is very difficult to have anything implemented when police are not on the beat, stoppingPage 47
crime. Instead they have one hand tied behind their backs because the government ripped $100 million out of their budget. It is very difficult for the government to have any credibility in this space when it has acted the way it has in relation to our emergency service workers.
We do not oppose the bill, but I point to the appalling record of the government and the devastation that it has caused in Victorian streets.
Mr D. R. J. O'BRIEN (Western Victoria) -- It is a pleasure to make a contribution to the debate on the Sentencing Amendment (Emergency Workers) Bill 2014. It is important to remind the house of the actual bill that we are speaking on tonight because one would not be able to glean that from the contribution we just heard. Mr Tee seemed to want to bring in all sorts of rhetoric related to policy which was in fact wrong. I cannot let his comments stand on the record without saying they are wrong in almost every respect.He did not direct any of his comments to the provisions of the bill, except when he belatedly conceded that it was important to protect our emergency workers. It is important that I briefly remind Mr Tee and other members of the house what the bill actually does.Mr Finn -- I don't think he'd actually read it.
Mr D. R. J. O'BRIEN -- I do not think he had either. It would not be the first time that Mr Tee made a clumsy and clunky contribution. I want to do what Mr Elasmar advised me to do -- and what Mr Tee ought to have done -- which is to remind the house of the purpose of the bill. The second-reading speech sets it out very clearly. The reforms introduced by this bill are designed to improve sentencing processes and outcomes in Victoria.The philosophical difference between our government and the previous government is very clear. We are prepared to have the courage of our convictions and to stand up and introduce stronger penalties for violent offences across the community. I am proud to say that the key reform introduced by this bill is stronger penalties for people convicted of violent offences against emergency workers who are in the course of performing their duties.
The purpose of the bill, as stated in the second-reading speech, is to recognise the very special role played by Victoria's emergency workers and the need to ensure that they receive the full protection of the law when treating, caring for and protecting Victorians in times of emergency.
Mr Finn -- Hear, hear!
Mr D. R. J. O'BRIEN -- From his encouraging remarks I take it that that is something Mr Finn and other members of the house seek to recognise.
It is important to focus on the nature of the work of emergency services workers in Victoria. Firstly, there are a large number of emergency services workers and they come from walks of life. They provide services that largely are unseen by many Victorians when things are going well or are being cared for. But when there is a fire in this state, emergency services workers will not run away from it; instead they run towards the fire. These workers include people from the Country Fire Authority (CFA), the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB) and the Department of Environment and Primary Industries (DEPI), together with other volunteer and career firefighters. The emergency workers exercise their courage and put their lives at risk, as they have done time and again.
One is reminded of the dedication of all emergency services workers but particularly those involved in firefighting when, as a member of Parliament, you have the honour and privilege of handing over fire trucks or opening new stations. It is certainly the greatest honour and privilege I have experienced as a member of Parliament. The coalition government has made a significant commitment in western Victoria alone by investing in fire stations. I will be opening three stations in my local community this weekend -- at Gazette, Burn Brae and the important training facility at Penshurst. Over past weekends the member for Lowan in the Assembly, Mr Delahunty, has opened stations at Werrap, Pimpinio, Antwerp, Woorak and Yanac. He was joined by The Nationals candidate for Lowan, Ms Kealy. The government has committed $125 million over the past three years to fulfil its commitment to build and upgrade 250 fire stations across the state by November. I am sure all members of Parliament, including Mr Ondarchie and The Nationals candidate for the Assembly electorate of Ripon, Scott Turner, will contribute in that regard.
I now turn to the bill, having put those matters raised by Mr Tee to rest. I am sure members on all sides of Parliament respect and honour the role that emergency services workers play in our community. That is why when they are threatened or assaulted while they are performing their duties it is an outrageous offence which is repugnant to the values that we all hold and to the notions of volunteerism, mateship or, if you like, the Australian values of caring for those in times of need. This government has shown the courage to implement reforms, but they are not just being implemented in this bill. This bill builds on other reforms which have created some controversy and debate in the legal community and even in this house.
The bill introduces a baseline sentence for the murder of an emergency worker on duty, a most egregious crime but a crime witnessed throughout the history of this state. The coalition government has brought in a regime of baseline sentences, which has been opposed or criticised by some but which can now be adapted to cover the important offence set out in part 3 of the bill. Mr Tee almost conceded that this will or ought to make things better, but in his clunky and somewhat churlish contribution he did not do so.
A baseline sentence is not a minimum or a mandatory sentence. Rather, it is the expected median sentence for the baseline offence taking into account sentences imposed under the baseline sentencing framework. Judges are not required to impose a baseline sentence.
However, they must act compatibly with Parliament's intention that the baseline sentence become the median sentence for the relevant offence. While this is a regime that provides for careful consideration of the Parliament's intention, there are issues of the separation of powers and the notion of judicial discretion. It is not an easy area in which to legislate because we must respect the independence of the judiciary. Nevertheless, I stand proudly by the careful process followed by the Attorney-General in crafting the policies in relation to baseline sentencing which led to the drafting of the legislation. Through that process the Attorney-General and the government have led the debate on respect for law and order, which will make our community safer.
Yes, there is sometimes going to be increased reporting of some offences. Yes, there is an ice scourge in our community that is manifesting itself in violence and aggression towards emergency workers, particularly in hospitals, but also towards police and emergency services in general.This has not been seen to the same degree with other drugs, egregious as they may be to the individual. We saw that in report recently tabled by my colleague Mr Ramsay and parliamentary colleagues from all sides of the chamber. I commend them on undertaking such an important piece of work. I also confirm that the government has been quick to respond to that report.
With the scourge of assaults on emergency workers there is a need for a legislative response. The bill sets a baseline sentence of 30 years imprisonment for the murder of an emergency worker on duty. That is the expected median sentence that ought to be imposed over time for such an egregious crime -- I will say it again, the murder of an emergency worker on duty. That is the intentional killing of an emergency worker on duty as murder is defined. I am very proud to stand behind that reform.If it is possible to put a thought into the mind of an aggressive person, I hope this sentence will engender a greater respect for the law when that person is contemplating such an egregious murder so as to prevent even one of these egregious murders.New assault offences are set out in part 4 of the bill, which introduces a range of assault offences against emergency workers and extends a number of existing offences. The bill extends the existing assault offence in the Crimes Act 1958 to cover assaults or threats to assault an emergency worker on duty or a person lawfully assisting an emergency worker on duty. The offence also deals with persons who resist or intentionally obstruct an emergency worker on duty or a person lawfully assisting an emergency work on duty. This offence will carry a maximum penalty of five years imprisonment.
The bill also creates the new summary offence of assaulting, resisting, obstructing, hindering or delaying an emergency worker on duty or a person lawfully assisting an emergency worker on duty, and this offence is punishable by 60 penalty units or imprisonment for a period of up to six months. Again a range of regimes is being introduced to deal with a range of conduct that goes across this absolutely unacceptable behaviour.
In relation to the statutory minimum for violent offences against an emergency worker under part 2 of the bill, it is important to note some of the penalties for those offences, which include intentionally causing serious injury in circumstances of gross violence -- another reform this government has been keen to target -- alcohol-fuelled violence or any violence be it in the home or be it on the street. It is unacceptable, and a maximum penalty of 20 years imprisonment will apply for these offences, with a statutory minimum of a 5-year non-parole period.
For recklessly causing serious injury in circumstances of gross violence, as defined in section 15B of the Sentencing Act 1991, the penalty is 15 years with a 5-year non-parole period. For intentionally causing serious injury, section 16 of the principal act, the penalty is 20 years with a 3-year non-parole period. For recklessly causing serious injury, section 17, the penalty is 15 years with a 2-year non-parole period. For intentionally causing injury, section 18, the penalty is 10 years with 6 months imprisonment; and for recklessly causing injury, also section 18, the penalty is 5 years or 6 months imprisonment. This is the suite of minimum sentences in relation to violent offences against emergency workers.
I mentioned the role that CFA volunteers and MFB volunteers and career officers play, but we also need to remember that the definition of 'emergency worker' is wide enough to cover the whole range of emergency services workers who provide such a valuable service to this community and a service that ought not to be the domain of party politics in a petty way. Obviously there will be serious issues of debate, but something we all agree on is the role that they fulfil; and this bill helps to protect that.The range that is defined, and I should put it on record because the breadth of the range demonstrates the breadth of the work, includes police and protective services officers (PSOs). We have seen the role the 940 PSOs have played in relation to our police. Once the assurance that you can be safe on public transport again is provided to a greater degree -- and it will not always be perfect but there is that consciousness that there are those PSOs who provide safety -- there can be greater utilisation of our public transport and greater safety in numbers for law-abiding communities.Paramedics are also persons engaged to provide emergency treatment of people at a hospital. I have mentioned that in relation to ice, but the dedication of all our paramedics and hospital workers is something that ought not to be the subject of assaults. I have also mentioned the DEPI and emergency responses in relation to their employee duties. The definition includes employees of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade, the CFA, Victoria State Emergency Service and volunteer emergency workers -- for example, lifesavers acting at the request of Life Saving Victoria or a volunteer auxiliary worker appointed by the CFA. The definition also includes persons who, although not a member or an employee of a particular organisation, may be required to respond to an emergency. This includes persons who are engaged by a government agency to perform work in relation to a particular emergency.
It is with the important breadth of the bill that I wish to complete my contribution.
There are also amendments in part 5 relating to community correction orders. They have been set out and well covered in the second-reading speech. I wish to place on record again my gratitude to emergency workers. I have had to use in a personal capacity the services of some emergency workers for my own family in recent months for various emergencies, and one is eternally grateful for their dedication and professionalism. They can certainly put party politics aside when they have to deal with what they have to deal with, and I urge this house to do so. I commend the bill to the house, and I commend the department and the minister for their work.
Ms PENNICUIK (Southern Metropolitan) -- The Sentencing Amendment (Emergency Workers) Bill 2014 is one of a suite of bills the government has introduced into this Parliament that bring the concept of baseline sentencing, minimum sentencing or mandatory sentencing into the sentencing regime in Victoria.This bill will amend the Sentencing Act 1991 and the Crimes Act 1958 to provide for statutory minimum custodial sentences for certain offences committed against emergency workers, including intentionally or recklessly causing injury, gross violence, intentionally causing serious injury, recklessly causing serious injury, or intentionally or recklessly causing injury, in which case the court must not impose a term of imprisonment of less than six months. All of these statutory minimums will apply unless a special reason exists under section 10A of the Sentencing Act.This bill will apply to a wide range of emergency workers under part 2 of the bill, including police and protective services officers, staff of Ambulance Victoria, and persons engaged in hospitals such as nurses, doctors and other hospital staff who are supporting the provision of emergency treatment to patients in a hospital. That is an interesting definition, because I am not sure if that means it only covers staff in the emergency section of a hospital.
This bill will also cover members of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade, the Country Fire Authority (CFA), casual firefighters within the meaning of the CFA act, voluntary auxiliary workers, persons employed by the Department of Environment and Primary Industries, particularly when engaged in assisting with fighting fires, and voluntary emergency workers within the meaning of the Emergency Management Act 2013. The bill covers a wide range of emergency workers or people who are engaged in or are called to respond to emergencies.
At the outset, people who respond to emergencies, or emergency services workers as defined in the bill, often have an extremely difficult job and are faced at times with aggressive and violent behaviour and very difficult and traumatic circumstances if they are being called to an accident, fire, natural disaster of some sort or an altercation involving violent behaviour. Sometimes an incident may be drug or alcohol fuelled, and the Greens fully agree that emergency services workers should be safe.
There are also issues around depression and even post-traumatic stress disorder that emergency services workers might have to deal with given the nature of their work. Of course their service is to be commended.
Any of the offences I read out before that are committed against emergency services workers are of course appalling. However, in acknowledging that, the important work that emergency workers do, the risks they often face and our belief that they should not be subject to any abuse, assaults or hindering of their work, I believe this legislation is not the answer. The Greens do not support mandatory sentencing and have not supported it in any of the other legislation that has been brought to this Parliament.Even the Drugs and Crime Prevention Committee's report on its 2011 inquiry into violence and security arrangements in Victorian hospitals, and in particular emergency departments, only made one legislative recommendation. Recommendation 5 at page x of the report states:The committee recommends that a specific offence of assaulting, obstructing, hindering or delaying a hospital or health worker or a licensed security guard or emergency worker in the execution or performance of their duties be considered in Victoria.
While this bill introduces such an offence, it goes far beyond that with the introduction of statutory minimum sentencing for certain offences against emergency workers and a baseline sentence for the murder of an emergency worker.The Attorney-General has not shown that there is a problem with penalties for offences against emergency workers. If there is, it is best handled -- as I have mentioned previously in Parliament with regard to other baseline sentencing bills -- by pursuing options that exist, such as increasing judicial expertise in the criminal matters, sentencing and offences against emergency workers.
Judicial education through our Judicial College of Victoria is an important means of increasing judicial expertise and thus promoting consistency in sentencing.As I have also mentioned before, the Court of Appeal provides a role in allowing a sentence which is deemed to be inadequate to be appealed, and that often happens. It sets a new precedent for sentencing of the particular offence that was appealed, and it has happened on many occasions. It is worth going back to the Sentencing Act and looking at the purposes in part 1 of that act, which are to promote consistency of approach in the sentencing of offenders, to provide fair procedures for imposing sentences, to prevent crime and promote respect for the law by:
(i) providing for sentences that are intended to deter the offender or other persons from committing offences of the same or a similar character; and(ii) providing for sentences that facilitate the rehabilitation of offenders; and(iii) providing for sentences that allow the court to denounce the type of conduct in which the offender engaged; and
(iv) ensuring that offenders are only punished to the extent justified by --(A) the nature and gravity of their offences; and
(B) their culpability and degree of responsibility for their offences; and(C) the presence of any aggravating or mitigating factor concerning the offender and of any other relevant circumstances;
Other purposes of the act include to promote public understanding of sentencing practices and procedures; to provide sentencing principles to be applied by courts in sentencing offenders and for special categories of offender; to set out the objectives of various sentencing and other orders to ensure that victims of crime receive adequate compensation and restitution; to provide a framework for the setting of maximum penalties; to vary the penalties and to generally reform the sentencing laws of Victoria.
The Sentencing Act is broad, comprehensive and all-encompassing in its purposes. Given that we have had a suite of bills -- we have this bill and another one to come later this week -- introducing mandatory minimum or baseline sentencing into the Sentencing Act, we now have a situation where it is difficult for the courts to reconcile the purposes of the act with the changes that have been made to sentencing regimes by these bills.
I draw the attention of members again to section 1(d)(iv) of the Sentencing Act, which says that one of the purposes of that act is to ensure that the offenders are only punished to the extent justified by the nature and gravity of their offences, their culpability and degree of responsibility for their offences, and the presence of any aggravating or mitigating factors concerning the offender and any other relevant circumstances. Any court that is presented with gross violence, reckless behaviour or intentionally violent behaviour against an emergency worker would take that into account as an aggravating factor. The court would already do that, and no evidence has been shown by the government that the courts are not doing that. Of course the court would take into account if an ambulance officer was assaulted during the course of their work, and I am sure the court would count that as an aggravating factor against the defendant.
There is support amongst emergency workers for this legislation because they want to feel safe, and I agree that they need to feel safe, but this is not the way to make emergency workers safe. When we look at the many recommendations made by the committee in its inquiry into violence and security arrangements in Victorian hospitals they include, for example, ensuring that there are specialist, trained security staff in all hospitals, CCTV cameras, purpose-built rooms for isolating or assessing violent or potentially violent persons and effective duress alarms. I note that the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation has just recently been calling for these types of measures. That is the way to keep emergency workers safe in hospitals because we want to prevent assaults against emergency workers, be they workers in a hospital, ambulance paramedics, police and PSOs, firefighters from the Metropolitan Fire Brigade or the CFA, or the other emergency workers covered by the bill.
It would also seem that the government should be doing more to tackle drug and alcohol-fuelled violence; more to assist with the increasing incidence of mental illness in the community; properly resourcing the courts' support services and programs; investing more in justice reinvestment initiatives; and managing behaviour change programs. All that would prevent violence in the community and violence that, because of their work, emergency workers may come into contact with in those circumstances.
There is no evidence that mandatory sentencing works, and in fact there is a lot of work coming out to suggest that it does not work. Even as early as August 2008 the Sentencing Advisory Council said in the conclusion of its research on mandatory sentencing:
There is, in any case, ample evidence that suggests that mandatory sentencing can and will be circumvented by lawyers, judges and juries both by accepted mechanisms (such as plea bargaining) and by less visible means. The outcome of this avoidance is to jeopardise seriously another central aim of mandatory sentencing; that is, to ensure that proportionate and consistent sentences are imposed. Even if this circumvention, both formal and informal, could be addressed, imposing a prescribed sanction or range of sanctions for offences (which invariably encompass a broad range of behaviours) guarantees only a very superficial, artificial consistency and one that trades its subtlety for simplicity.
These are the sorts of points I have made before with regard to mandatory sentencing.
It does not allow the courts to take into account the full range of circumstances that are before them, and while there may be an average sentence imposed and an average non-parole period imposed for some offences that some people may not agree with, the fact is that the range of sentences could be quite a bit lower than the average, and of course where there is egregious behaviour and aggravating circumstances there will be a range that is way above the average. I looked at some of the sentences with regard to the types of offences the government has been targeting with this suite of legislation. You will find that that range does go above the mandatory minimum sentence the government is wanting to put in place.
We know that the Law Institute of Victoria, the Victorian Bar Council and Liberty Victoria -- august bodies which deal with the criminal justice system every day and are involved in the criminal justice system all the time -- do not support mandatory sentencing, or baseline sentencing either, for the reasons I have outlined. It is not that they do not have compassion for people who have been assaulted and their families, nor that they are not outraged by that sort of behaviour, but the courts already have enough tools to deal with the circumstances before them and to impose the right sentence. If a mistake is made, the Court of Appeal is there to deal with that.
The bill also makes some changes to community correction orders (CCOs) by amending section 44 of the Sentencing Act 1991. We have had some concerns regarding those proposed amendments whereby changes will be made such that community correction orders can be imposed with longer sentences. At the moment the maximum is a three-month sentence, and that is being increased to two years.
We have had some feedback from the Federation of Community Legal Centres with regard to those changes. The federation is concerned that the courts may opt for an offender to go straight from jail to a CCO. It believes that it would be better to restore parole and ensure that parole is properly assessed, supervised and managed rather than having offenders put on CCOs on direct release from jail. Of course we are not talking about serious, violent offenders here, which is evident just by way of the types of sentences that differ between three months and two years. We are not dealing with high-end offenders here; we are dealing with offenders that the Sentencing Act in its purpose section wants to see rehabilitated.
The bill before us makes these changes to community correction orders, which the federation has concerns with, and it introduces baseline, minimum sentencing, for which we do not feel there is any need, notwithstanding that we, along with the rest of the community, abhor any violent or abusive behaviour or assault towards emergency workers. The answer to that is to bring in preventive measures, particularly in hospitals where ambulance workers and health workers may come and be affected by such behaviour but also across the community.We are not doing enough in terms of restricting the availability of alcohol and the clustering of licensed venues, which was identified as an issue by a Victorian parliamentary committee a long time ago. All we have seen since then is an explosion of the availability of alcohol, both in the time it is available and in the places it is available. We have an issue with alcohol. Mr David O'Brien was talking about ice before, but I note that the Law Reform, Drugs and Crime Prevention Committee itself said that the problem of ice was dwarfed by the problem of alcohol. These are the sorts preventive measures that are best employed.
It is best to maintain the separation of powers between the executive and the judiciary and to trust the courts to take into account all the circumstances of the cases before them. The Greens will not be supporting this bill.
Mr ELASMAR (Northern Metropolitan) -- I rise to speak about the Sentencing Amendment (Emergency Workers) Bill 2014. The essential element of this bill is the introduction of provisions into the Sentencing Act 1991 that require sentencing courts to impose a statutory term of imprisonment for adult offenders who are convicted of particular offences against emergency services workers.Police, firefighters, State Emergency Service workers, ambulance personnel and nurses and doctors who work in our hospital emergency departments are amongst the bravest and, in my view, the most heroic people, placing their own safety at risk each time they perform their duties. It is unconscionable to any normal thinking person that emergency services workers can expect to be assaulted for protecting, defending or medically treating members of the community. They are attacked for trying to help alcohol-affected or drug-affected people and, in the case of police, for protecting our lives and our properties from increasingly violent thefts.
Home invasions and drive-by shootings are becoming more commonplace. Young people are becoming substantially more aggressive, and we see this every week on the news. The Melbourne nightclub scene is a horrific battleground for mainly male adolescents who take out their mindless anger and hostility on each other. Parents are fearful for their sons and daughters who start out their evenings having a good time but end up in hospital casualty wards alongside police who are also injured in the melee.
The bill introduces stronger penalties for violent offences against on-duty emergency workers. As previously stated by my colleague Mr Tee, we do not oppose the bill. While I understand the complexities of putting legislation together and the consultative process with the legal fraternity and other stakeholders, it is a pity the bill could not have been introduced as a priority three years ago.
There are some who say the bill does not go far enough in relation to minimum sentences, which are five years for intentionally or recklessly causing serious injury in circumstances of gross violence, three years for intentionally causing serious injury, two years for recklessly causing serious injury and six months for intentionally or recklessly causing injury.
The bill also introduces a 30-year baseline sentence for the murder of an emergency services worker on duty. The bill, however, provides flexibility in its 'special reasons' provision for offenders aged between 18 and 21 found guilty of causing serious injury to an emergency worker. A court may impose a sentence other than the prescribed minimum if it believes there is a reasonable prospect of rehabilitation of the young offender.
The community expects our emergency services personnel to protect us in dangerous circumstances, so it is right and proper that they are afforded justice when they have been injured in the performance of their duties.
Ms CROZIER (Southern Metropolitan) -- I am pleased to be able to rise this evening and speak on the Sentencing Amendment (Emergency Workers) Bill 2014.
I note that the Greens do not support this bill, but members of the Labor opposition do, and I am pleased that they do because it is an important piece of legislation that has been, I would suggest, quite a long time coming. At the outset I commend those involved in its formulation.
The bill delivers on the coalition government's commitment to introduce higher sentences for offenders who injure or seriously injure emergency workers on duty.
We have just heard from Mr David O'Brien, who went through various elements of the bill and highlighted an array of emergency workers to whom this bill will apply. I concur with the comments he made on behalf of the government in relation to what this bill will do to protect those workers.
The bill amends the Sentencing Act 1991, the Crimes Act 1958 and the Children, Youth and Families Act 2005. As I said, it delivers on the government's commitment to introduce stronger sentences for offences against emergency workers. This is in line with community expectation, and for some time community expectation has been that emergency workers in the course of their duties should be protected from aggression and acts of violence. When I worked in the health system there were times when I was attacked. I have had various pieces of equipment thrown at me, and I have been scratched and spat at. In the course of one's duty that can happen on occasion, but when we are talking about increased rates of --
-- An honourable member interjected.
Ms CROZIER -- It did happen when going through various demonstration lines, Mr Finn.Mr Lenders interjected.
Ms CROZIER -- On demonstration lines we have been abused verbally too.However, I will get back to this important bill because I do not want to digress further. We are talking about serious crimes against emergency workers. I note that Mr Lenders and Mrs Coote, also members of the Southern Metropolitan Region which I represent, are in the house tonight. I point this out because the Victoria Police memorial is sited in Kings Domain gardens, which is in our electorate. The memorial was opened in 2002 and stands as a dedication to and constant reminder of the service provided by those brave men and women who have been killed in the line of duty. That is at the extreme end of what we are talking about tonight -- those dreadful circumstances where policemen and women are killed in the line of duty. Clearly those offenders need to be punished for those murders, and this bill puts in place steps to ensure that people who commit such acts are rightfully convicted and receive the maximum sentence.
As I said, the bill provides for the imposition of increased sentences for offenders who injure, seriously injure or murder an emergency worker on duty. These reforms will bring sentences for offences against emergency workers on duty in line with community expectations. That is exactly what the government is attempting to do, and this bill addresses those concerns.
A news article published a few days ago outlined the story of a patient at the Monash Medical Centre who was believed to have been affected by the drug ice. He was so violent that four security guards could not control him, and police were called to attend that incident. We know there are increasing episodes of very violent crime due to drugs and alcohol, and ice in particular. I commend the Drugs and Crime Prevention Committee on its report into methamphetamine use. The report was recently tabled in Parliament, and it highlights the effects of this drug.
We know the numbers of those using ice are increasing. Mr Tee, in his contribution, said that this government has done nothing and the crime statistics have gone up. I thought his contribution was absolutely ridiculous because it did not take into account those situations we are talking about tonight -- the very violent acts that happen on our streets. We know that ice is a significant problem, and I commend in particular Minister Wooldridge and others who are looking at and dealing with this issue and who are looking at measures to support the community to combat the growing epidemic of ice.
Returning to the bill and to the comments I made at the outset of my contribution to the debate, these reforms are necessary to improve sentencing processes. I note that the Australian Medical Association wrote to the former Attorney-General in 2007 requesting a review of the penalties applicable under a number of provisions of the Crimes Act 1958, with a view to increasing their severity, where the relevant offence is committed against a health professional.A letter from the then Attorney-General, Mr Hulls, talked about the violence against health professionals as:
... something that the Victorian government takes very seriously as it harms not only the individuals involved, but the health system as a whole, and consequently the community and all VictoriansI absolutely concur with that. His letter did not go on to say that yes, he would act on this issue. It says:
The government has decided that there is some scope to clarify the existing law relating to acts of violence against the person.
The former government did not do very much. That is in direct contrast with what our government is doing. We are acting on this issue.
Health workers know we are acting on this and they are very pleased with the actions of the government. In terms of what we have done, I again would like to commend those who put this bill together.
In conclusion, this legislation sends a strong message to the community that violence and aggression against health workers is not acceptable. This legislation reinforces the government's commitment to ensuring the safety and security of health workers. I commend the bill to the house.
Mr EIDEH (Western Metropolitan) -- I rise to speak on the Sentencing Amendment (Emergency Workers) Bill 2014, which Labor will not be opposing.
I am certain that everyone in this house and Victoriansacross the state would all agree that emergency services workers play an invaluable role in our communities, and I acknowledge them all for their self-sacrificing work. They include police officers, the Melbourne Fire Brigade, the Country Fire Authority, ambulance officers, healthcare workers, including but not exclusive to doctors and nurses, Victoria State Emergency Service members and all contractors and volunteers as defined within the Emergency Management Act 1986 who selflessly volunteer during emergencies.
This bill introduces statutory minimum sentences for offenders who are convicted of violent offences against emergency workers who are on duty. It provides a baseline statutory minimum sentence of 30 years for the murder of an emergency worker. The bill also enacts new summary assault offences against emergency workers on duty. This summary assault offence will empower Victorian courts to impose a sentence of imprisonment of up to two years and a community correction order as the sentence.We on this this side of the house believe this bill is very important, as every Victorian is entitled to feel safe and protected at work, and emergency service workers are certainly no different.Each year Victorians across the state proudly wear a blue ribbon to remember and honour police officers who have been killed in the line of duty. The objective of the Blue Ribbon Foundation is:
... to encourage the public of Victoria to remember the sacrifice of officers who have fallen in the line of duty and to show all serving members of Victoria Police that their work and commitment is valued by a caring community.This bill not only gives justice to the 157 honourable officers who have tragically lost their lives while on duty but to their families whose lives changed forever at the hands of those who committed such horrendous offences.
On another point, there is a continuing problem faced by the state's nurses, doctors, paramedics and other allied health workers in emergency departments across the state. This issue was referred to by the shadow minister for emergency services, the member for Williamstown in the Assembly, when he was quoted by Henrietta Cook in the Age of 8 August in an article headed 'One in three mental health workers attacked: report'. The article outlines that in the past 12 months one in three Victorian mental health workers were physically assaulted. A total of 83 per cent of mental health workers were victims of violence or abuse in their workplace, with 81 per cent verbally assaulted, 34 per cent physically attacked, 14 per cent racially attacked, and 7 per cent being victims of sexual harassment.
This is an extremely disconcerting issue and it is inexcusable. These workers, like all others, must feel safe in their workplace, and factors such as an increase in demand for mental health services being met with inadequate staffing levels and cuts to services is leaving these workers facing volatile conditions.While this bill seeks to penalise those who commit such offences, the government must ensure that it is doing all it can to offer the necessary funding and support to these workers to reduce the violence happening in the first place. The opposition does not oppose the bill.
Hon. E. J. O'DONOHUE (Minister for Liquor and Gaming Regulation) -- I conclude the second-reading debate by responding to some of the matters raised, and I thank the opposition for supporting this legislation. I want to correct some of the factual errors made by Mr Tee.In his contribution he talked about police babysitting prisoners, and he cited some material that was produced many months ago. I want to update the house and advise Mr Tee and other members that as a result of the government's investment in the corrections system the number of prisoners in police cells has been trending down for a considerable period. Indeed tonight I understand that the number of people in police cells is somewhere in the mid-100s. We have seen a significant reduction, from over 300 people in police cells in November last year to now the mid-100s, and, as I said, that number is trending down.
That number is also reflected by the capacity in the corrections system. It is true that there were some real capacity challenges following the parole reforms instituted by this government, which were prompted by tragedies that we are aware of. But again as a result of the investment this government has made in the corrections system, we have seen hundreds of new beds being added to the prison system.What that also means now is that the prison system is operating at well below the 95 per cent capacity level that is recommended and is generally adopted around jurisdictions in Australia. We have significantly fewer prisoners in police cells -- the number is trending down -- and we have greater capacity in the prison system, which is now operating at a level significantly below the 95 per cent generally accepted threshold.I wanted to correct those factual errors made by Mr Tee. He is big on rhetoric, but short on knowledge.
That is probably not surprising when Mr Tee has shown little interest in the corrections system, as indeed has the shadow Minister for Corrections, the member for Lyndhurst in the other place. He has been the shadow minister for the best part of nine months and he has visited just two correctional facilities, two prisons, in Victoria. I encourage Mr Tee to get out and have a look at some of the investments that have been made in our corrections system and to take Mr Pakula with him. I think they would find it most interesting and most enlightening about the reforms that have been implemented by this government.I want to touch briefly on the comments made by Ms Pennicuik. It is regrettable that the Greens are opposed to this legislation, which is an important community safety initiative for emergency service workers. It is regrettable that we cannot have the full support of all members of the chamber for this important legislation. It says much about the priorities of the Greens.
Ms Pennicuik said that more needs to be invested in behavioural change programs.Ms Pennicuik may not have read the detail, but a significant proportion of the government's $84.1 million four-year parole reform package, which was delivered in this year's budget, is for programs for prisoners so that they do the necessary programs while in prison. Importantly, now they will not be considered for parole until they have done the appropriate behavioural change programs.Ms Pennicuik made a reference to restoring parole. That is exactly what this government has done. We have legislated that community safety be the top priority of the Adult Parole Board of Victoria in making decisions about parole, we have toughened parole significantly, and we have put into the adult parole board the investment that Labor should have put in years ago. We have significantly enhanced, strengthened and toughened the parole system. When Ms Pennicuik says that we need to restore parole, I am not quite sure what she is talking about. Is she talking about weakening the parole system or going back to the parole system we had before these reforms were instituted by the government?
Ms Pennicuik was contradictory in her remarks. On the one hand she said that the Greens are opposed to the baseline sentences that are introduced by this legislation because they do not give the courts the flexibility they should have. She then went on to criticise the reforms to the community correction order that are being implemented by the bill. Those reforms increase the flexibility of the courts when determining the appropriate sentence and the appropriate form of penalty for a convicted criminal. Ms Pennicuik was absolutely contradictory in her arguments.To conclude, it is most regrettable that the Greens will vote against this legislation and, as the lead speaker for the opposition, Mr Tee has demonstrated just how little Labor Party members understand the corrections system, how little they understand community safety and how out of touch they are with community sentiment on these issues.House divided on motion:
Barber, Mr (Teller) Pennicuik, Ms
Hartland, Ms (Teller)
Motion agreed to.
Read second time.
Hon. E. J. O'DONOHUE (Minister for Liquor and Gaming Regulation) -- By leave, I move:That the bill be now read a third time.
The PRESIDENT -- Order! The question is:That the bill be now read a third time and do pass.
House divided on question:Page 56
Barber, Mr (Teller) Pennicuik, Ms (Teller) Hartland, Ms