Have the courts become more lenient?

Release date: Wednesday 15 April 2015, Embargo: 10.30am

Full report: Have New South Wales criminal courts become more lenient in the past 20 years? (pdf 711Kb)

Over the last 20 years, courts in New South Wales (NSW) have become much tougher in their sentencing and bail decisions according to a new report by the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research.

In the NSW Local Courts (which deal with the vast majority of criminal offences), the percentage of defendants refused bail almost doubled; increasing from 4.7 per cent in 1994 to 8.8 per cent in 2013.

Most categories of offence dealt with by the Local Court showed increases in the percentage refused bail. Particularly large increases occurred in relation to those charged with break and enter (up 27.4 percentage points) or theft and related offences (up 11.6 percentage points).

The percentage of offenders imprisoned by the Local Court has increased for 10 out of the 15 major offence categories. The percentage imprisoned for break and enter rose by 15.9 percentage points, while the percentage receiving a prison sentence for sexual assault and related offences more than doubled (from 13.6% in 1994 to 28.1% in 2013).

Prison sentence lengths imposed by the Local Court also increased for many offences, including acts intended to cause injury (up 42.9%), sexual assault and related offences (up 62.7%), dangerous or negligent driving (up 42%), prohibited and regulated weapons and explosives offences (up 46.8%); and traffic and vehicle regulatory offences (up 59.5%). 

The move toward tougher bail and sentencing decisions is also evident in the NSW Higher Criminal Courts (which deal with the most serious offences). The percentage of defendants refused bail by the Higher Courts increased from 26.1 per cent in 1994 to 47.7 per cent in 2013.

The percentage of convicted offenders given a custodial sentence by the Higher Courts increased in 10 out of 15 categories of offence and most of the increases in the imprisonment rate exceeded 20 per cent, with some exceeding 30 per cent. 

The average length of the prison term imposed by the Higher Courts rose in six out of 15 categories of offence. The increases ranged from 7.2 per cent (for theft and related offences) to 96.8 per cent (for offences against justice procedures, such as breaching parole).

Commenting on the findings, the director of the Bureau said that, thanks to some sections of the media, most people think that our courts have become more lenient in their treatment of people charged with criminal offences.

“The truth is that, compared with 20 years ago, those charged with criminal offences these days are (1) more likely to be refused bail (2) more likely to receive a prison sentence if convicted and, if imprisoned, (3) more likely to spend longer behind bars.” 

Further enquiries: Dr Don Weatherburn 8346 1100
Copies of the report: www.bocsar.nsw.gov.au