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QSAC review: Current SVO scheme needs reform

An independent review of Queensland’s Serious Violent Offender (SVO) scheme has found the 25-year-old laws need serious reform.

These include scrapping the current mandatory sentencing practices compelling declared violent offenders to serve a minimum of 80% of jail terms in custody.

The Queensland Sentencing Advisory Council (QSAC) will this morning deliver its final report to Attorney-General Shannon Fentiman – which, after a 14-month review, has found that the state’s SVO scheme is not fully meeting its objectives.

QSAC Chair John Robertson, who served as Queensland District Court judge for almost 25 years and was a former Childrens Court President, said today that the report recommended changing the scheme to apply presumptively to certain serious offences sentenced to more than five years’ jail.

“Based on the Council’s findings, the serious violent offences scheme under Part 9A of the Penalties and Sentences Act 1992 (Qld) should be retained and reformed,” he said. “A wholly presumptive model should replace the current split mandatory/discretionary SVO scheme.”

The proposed change is one of 26 recommendations made in QSAC’s 324-page final report entitled ‘The ’80 per cent Rule’: The Serious Violent Offences Scheme in the Penalties and Sentences Act 1992 (Qld)’.

In April 2021, Ms Fentiman tasked QSAC with reviewing the SVO scheme, which was introduced in 1997 to address concerns of community and public safety as a result of violent offences.

Mr Robertson said sentencing data showed there were only a small number of discretionary declarations being made for sentences of less than 10-years under the current SVO scheme.

“Victims of serious offences told us that, when a discretionary declaration is not made in these circumstances, it can profoundly decrease their satisfaction with the sentencing outcome,” he said.

“Under a presumptive approach, a court must make a declaration unless it finds that it would not be in the interests of justice to do so.

“This acknowledges the serious harm these offences cause to victims, survivors and their families and will likely result in more declarations being made for sentences under 10 years.”

Under Queensland’s current SVO scheme, sentences handed to people convicted of declared serious violent offences require they serve a minimum of 80% or 15 years – whichever is lesser — of prison terms imposed by the courts.

Mr Robertson said the current fixed 80% non-parole terms being meted out were cause for concern regarding the short periods of time offenders would be supervised on parole and others who did not apply for parole at all.

“Under the Council’s proposed reforms, the judge would be able to consider individual circumstances to decide where to set parole eligibility within a set range of 50–80%,” Mr Robertson said.

“The majority of the offenders who are convicted of an offence with an SVO declaration will eventually be released from prison.

“Evidence suggests serious offenders who have served long sentences need more, rather than less, time supervised on parole in the community to reduce their risks of reoffending.”

QSAC found the SVO scheme, in its current form, was not meeting its objectives and made 26 recommendations for change.

Key recommendations contained in the report include:

  • creation of a new, separate schedule of offences that would apply to the scheme
  • the new schedule include offences such as child exploitation material, choking, suffocation or strangulation in a domestic setting, and female genital mutilation
  • other, less serious offences be removed from the new scheme
  • keeping serious drug offences sentenced to 10 years and more in the scheme to recognise the serious harm these offences cause to the community. This threshold is higher than the five-year threshold for offences involving sexual violence and non-sexual violence to recognise differences in the risk these offenders pose to the community.
  • changing the name to the ‘serious offences scheme’ to better reflect that not all serious offences included in the scheme are violent, for instance, serious drug offences.

Mr Robertson said that, while the review was complex and challenging, the recommendations outlined in the report would allow the scheme to better meet its intended purposes.

“At the heart of this reference were three key questions: does the serious violent offences scheme appropriately recognise the seriousness of these offences, is it applied only in appropriate cases, and is it working to protect the community?” he said.

“After careful consideration of all the evidence, data and feedback, we are confident that our recommendations will reform the scheme to better serve the interests of justice and the community.”

QSAC member, SVO scheme project sponsor and respected criminal lawyer Dan Rogers said the Council was grateful to all the victims and their support organisations for their invaluable contribution to the review.

“We value the time and courage it took for many of you to share your stories, telling us what you thought about the scheme, what you feel is currently working, and how the scheme could be improved,” Mr Rogers said.

“We are also indebted to legal professionals, government organisations and other valued stakeholders for lending us their time and expertise by participating in expert interviews, taking part in consultation sessions and making written submissions.”

The Council has published its final report, and a community summary, on its website.

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