In conversation: Q&A* with Martin Pakula, Victoria’s Shadow Attorney General

Victoria's Shadow Attorney General Martin Pakula

*This feature provides the Victorian Labor Opposition’s responses to questions also addressed in our hard copy edition of Insight to Attorney General Robert Clark.

1. How would you define your approach to justice and what has informed it over the years?

Firstly the community should be under no illusion about Labor’s approach. We believe that keeping citizens safe from harm is one of the highest priorities of government, and we must do everything we can to prevent bad people from committing violent acts against innocent people. But describing yourself as ‘tough on crime’ as this State Government has done is, by itself, not enough.

Headline-grabbing claims about legislation that makes little real difference doesn’t do much to prevent crime occurring. In fact the statistics speak for themselves. Under the Liberal/National Government, Victoria Police statistics show we have seen two and a half years of increasing crime rates.

My preferred approach is much more holistic and includes a desire to deal with the causes of crime; opportunities for young people through education, and sport, and trades training; and diverting young people away from the justice system, whenever it is appropriate to do so.

2. There is a wealth of evidence showing that Victorian prisoners typically come from disadvantaged backgrounds with higher rates of intellectual disability, drug or alcohol issues, homelessness, mental illness, unemployment and poor educational outcomes. What does the role of disadvantage say to you about crime and the way to approach prevention and stopping reoffending?

There is no question that disadvantage plays a significant role in predicting whether individuals are at risk of entering a life of crime and that more effort must be put into treating the underlying causes of offending behaviour. This will ultimately reduce crime, reduce prison numbers and make our community safer.

The best deterrence methods occur long before an offender ends up in court.

The Government’s cuts to TAFE, sport and recreation, school reading programs and at-risk youth agencies remove opportunities and support to keep some kids out of trouble and some will, as a consequence, end up in the justice system.

3. The Victorian Auditor-General has highlighted the lack of capacity in Victorian prisons to meet the forecast growth in prisoner numbers and the Department of Justice has said that sentencing reform is the main driver of this growth. Given the high cost of building and operating prisons and the low success rate of prisons in stopping reoffending, is it time to consider a new approach? Do you see value in a Justice Reinvestment approach which redirects prison spending towards programs that address the underlying causes of crime and that strengthen communities?

In many cases, prison is genuinely the only appropriate option. But I want to raise my children in a community that spends more money on its schools and hospitals than it does on its jails. It currently costs more than $300 per day to keep a person in prison in Australia.

There are many proactive approaches that are capable of diverting people at risk of offending or those already offending out of a cycle of recidivism.

There is a wealth of evidence in support of Justice Reinvestment and the resulting successes. If it can work in Texas it can certainly have an impact here.

The Senate has just reported on its inquiry into the value of a justice reinvestment approach to criminal justice in Australia. I hope that the Victorian Government gives consideration to the report.

Further, proof is mounting that the Government’s so-called tough on crime approach is failing. Their rhetoric has not been matched by results.

In fact, for the first time in a decade, crime is going up. The latest statistics[i] have shown that in a 12 month period:

  • overall, crimes against the person have increased by 9.2 per cent
  • assaults have increased by 13.6 per cent
  • drug offences have increased by 14.6 per cent.

By contrast, under Labor, Victoria saw 10 years of reduced crime rates. (Ed note: Labor cites Victoria Police statistics for the past decade for this statement.)

4. What is your view on problem-solving court programs, like the Neighbourhood Justice Centre (NJC) and the Court Integrated Services Program (CISP), that seek to address the underlying causes of crime?

I was proud to be part of the Government that introduced the NJC, CISP, Koori Courts, the Drug Court, and the sex-worker list. When they were in Opposition, the Liberal and National parties slammed many of these initiatives, but they’ve embraced them in Government. Why? Because they work!

Often the criminal justice system is the first point of contact between an offender and the state and therefore it is an opportunity to plug that person into the services they need to address the reason they offended in the first place. Prison is often not the best option – for the offender or for society – and may, in fact, lead to more serious offending upon release. New Yorkers understood that when they invested in their Neighbourhood Justice Centres in Midtown and Red Hook, and so did we.

I would like to see many of the positive lessons learned through these innovative courts and lists integrated more broadly through the court system.

5. Aboriginal Victorians are around 13 times more likely to be in prison in Victoria than non-Aboriginals. How do we address this?

Various alternative sentencing options such as non-custodial sentences, diversion and Koori conferencing have been shown to have greater success at keeping Aboriginal  Victorians out of the justice system, as opposed to a stint in prison.

Indigenous people in Victoria are more likely to be imprisoned than non-Indigenous people. The male Indigenous recidivism rate is also higher and, statistically, Indigenous offenders are less likely to complete their community-based orders.

Corrections Victoria delivers a range of successful offending behaviour programs to prisoners and offenders to reduce the extent to which they perpetrate crime or re-offend. Indigenous prisoners and offenders tend not to participate in these programs because the programs don’t necessarily consider the importance of culture and family/community to the reduction of Indigenous offender recidivism. There is a need to tailor programs specifically for Indigenous offenders that encompasses culture, family and community, Indigenous staff and Koori specific services.

6. Do you agree that children (under 18) who offend should not be placed in an adult prison and if so, how do we stop this practice in Victoria?

Placing young offenders with hardened adult prisoners will only increase the likelihood of those young offenders going on to a life of more serious crime. The placement of young offenders with adult offenders, has, in recent times, been about the Government not committing adequate resources to match its philosophy about the criminal justice system. If there are going to be more arrests, more trials, less legal aid, and fewer guilty pleas, it’s little wonder the system clogs up and we see more delays and outcomes like young offenders being placed in adult prisons.

7. Last year, the Government reaffirmed its commitment to implement the Ombudsman’s recommendation to establish an independent agency to manage, collate and disseminate Victorian crime statistics. When will this agency be established?

Not applicable.  (Ed note: This is a Government initiative and the Opposition advised it did not have the information to determine its commencement.)

8.   Access to justice in Victoria is not only a socio-economic issue, but geographic, with young people in rural and regional Victoria often being locked up in police cells or prisons simply because there’s no access to bail support or remand. How should we address that inequity?

Young people should only be detained in police custody when it is absolutely necessary, and their safety, health and well-being should be a priority, including not being detained with adults.

I understand that young people may be remanded because there is a reason they may not be able to meet bail conditions, for example, if they are homeless. It is therefore important that assistance be provided at the earliest opportunity.

The Intensive Bail Supervision Program provides a case manager to young people appearing before the Melbourne Magistrate’s court to help them comply with any bail conditions etc. There is merit in exploring the possibility of expanding this service to rural and regional Victoria.

9.   Youth Parole Board figures show that 38 per cent of young people who were in custody in Victoria in October 2011 had previous Child Protection involvement and 65 per cent were victims of abuse, trauma or neglect prior to incarceration. How do we break that nexus?

It is a sad and shameful reality that many young people in custody are a product of years of violence and neglect. The only way to break the nexus is early intervention and increased family support.

It is important to establish and foster a coordinated and intensive effort across government and within the service sectors to build skills, attitudes and values that reject violence.

10. Sentencing reforms such as mandatory minimum jail terms and baseline sentences will increase prison terms and reduce the ability of courts to ensure that the punishment fits the crime. How do you reconcile these changes with research showing that when the public has the same facts about a crime as a court, on average they agree with the court’s sentence?

I am a believer that sentencing should keep pace with community expectations and indeed have the laws amended if faults are identified. That is why I value independent experts like the Sentencing Advisory Council whose job it is to consult with the community on sentencing laws and provide advice to Government about changes to the system.

Further I think it is important that judges are highly trained and up to date with sentencing statistics and community attitudes and the Judicial College of Victoria is providing this service.

For serious indictable offences, I also think it’s valuable for judges to be apprised of the views of the jury as to the appropriate sentencing range, and it’s why Labor has announced that we’ll introduce just such a reform if we are successful at the next election.

I am not opposed to legislative guidance for judges on sentencing, however judicial discretion should be maintained. It is too simplistic to adopt a one-size-fits-all approach to sentencing. In fact, despite the Coalition’s calls from opposition, media releases and rhetoric, they too support this notion – all of their ‘tough’ legislation has retained the ability for judges to provide sentences appropriate to the specific circumstances of the case.

11. Victorians are being issued with more fines and for higher amounts. Should you be sent to jail if you can’t afford to pay your fines?

Fines are an appropriate measure to encourage law abiding behaviour.  People who have difficulty paying their fines have the option of entering into payment plans.

Most people do the right thing and pay their fines; however some individuals and companies consistently ignore their responsibilities, continue to accrue more fines and hope they will just go away. This type of behaviour should not be condoned and the judicial response should be firm.

In cases of genuine hardship, or mitigating factors that have led to a person receiving a fine (for example, mental health issues) the court has the discretion to revoke the fine or order community work, and this is appropriate.

I do not support the practice of issuing fines to homeless persons who beg for money on the street. Obviously it would be ludicrous to incarcerate a vulnerable individual because they cannot pay their ‘begging fine’.

12. Is the current level of access to legal assistance for Victorians acceptable? If not, how should we improve access to legal help for Victorians who can’t afford to pay for a lawyer?

I am supportive of free legal representation and advice to vulnerable and poor Victorians, including children at risk, families experiencing violence, persons facing incarceration, seniors, persons with a mental illness or intellectual disability and new arrivals to Australia.

Everyone who comes into contact with the justice system should be entitled to some assistance. Legal Aid and Community Legal Centres do their best to meet demand, however the Coalition Government has not ensured that there are sufficient resources available to accompany its so-called tough law and order agenda.

The community is beginning to see the consequences of an underfunded legal aid system. The Government’s inaction has forced Legal Aid to reduce services, cut jobs and close offices.  The  Opposition’s motion for an inquiry into legal aid funding and access to justice has been rejected by the Government.

13. VCOSS welcomed the Government’s discussion paper on diversion for young people. What are your views on diverting young people who offend away from formal criminal justice processes?

These issues have been dealt with in answer to earlier question.

14. In the Insight tradition, what books are by your bed? 

Bring up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel

Batavia – Peter Fitzsimons

The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver

Afterwords – Paul Keating


[i] Victoria Police, My Place: Crime statistics in your area, 2011-2012, available at


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