Australia: Changes to the NT's mandatory sentencing laws pass parliament, prisoner numbers reach new record

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diagram, engineering drawing: The government hopes reforms to the NT's mandatory sentencing laws will end the © Provided by ABC NEWS The government hopes reforms to the NT's mandatory sentencing laws will end the "revolving door" of prison sentences for offenders.  (Supplied)

The Northern Territory has abolished a handful of its controversial mandatory sentencing laws, in a move legal experts say will remove a "real blot on the justice system" and restore independence to its judges.

The new laws mean judges are no longer required by law to automatically impose prison sentences — some as short as seven days — for a small range of domestic violence, drug and assault offences.

The changes passed Northern Territory parliament after hours of debate, and follow a 2021 report from the NT Law Reform Committee, which called for a broader range of mandatory sentencing laws to be repealed.

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Russell Goldflam, a lawyer who co-authored that report but spoke to the ABC in a private capacity, said the mandatory sentencing had "comprehensively failed" since the laws were brought in more than two decades ago.

"Offending has gone up, imprisonment has gone up, crime has gone up, and sentencing has gone up," he said.

"If it was designed to make people offend less, then it's comprehensively failed to do that."

The government has ignored the committee's recommendation to abolish the mandatory life sentence for murder, an issue thrust into the spotlight after Katherine man Zak Grieve was handed a life sentence for his involvement in a murder he did not commit.

Mandatory sentencing laws will also remain in place for some sexual offences and assaults on frontline workers.

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"[The changes] certainly don't implement everything that I'd like to see happen in the realm of mandatory sentencing, which in my view is a real blot on the justice system," Mr Goldflam said.

"But they go a long way to restoring to judges the sentencing powers that judges all over the world normally have and which they certainly need in order to impose just sentences on offenders."

Prisons reaching capacity, people sleeping on floors

The laws have passed as the Northern Territory corrections system struggles with record inmate numbers, with new data revealing Darwin's adult prison was above 100 per cent capacity at the end of June.

The prison reached record crowding levels — with 1,221 inmates to its 1,174 beds — in July, according to a government spokesman.

Correctional officers are resorting to contingency mattresses placed on floors to make up the shortfall.

The Country Liberal Party said the laws send a message that the Labor government is soft on crime, with Shadow Attorney General Steve Edgington telling parliament the changes represent a last-ditch bid to ease pressure on its "overflowing prisons".

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"This bill sends a signal to offenders that even if you commit these very serious crimes, you will no longer be assured any time in prison at all," he said.

"While it may be the case that mandatory sentencing does not act as an effective deterrent in some cases, the opposite might just be true."

The government's changes also provide two new sentencing orders for judges, which allow for corrections orders to be served in communities under supervision, with a focus on changing behaviour to reduce repeat offending.

The laws will be delayed for at least six months until those programs are in place.

Attorney-General Chansey Paech said the reforms will give more power to courts to refer offenders to existing rehabilitation services, like drug, alcohol and domestic and family violence programs, rather than creating a "revolving door" into prisons.

"What this bill does is give discretion back to the judiciary to tailor sentences according to the facts," he said.

"There will be supervision, there will be consequences, nothing about this bill means people won't go to jail."

The legislation is the second tranche of significant justice sector reforms to pass parliament this fortnight as the government seeks to overhaul a system it says is broken.

Controversial changes to the NT's anti-discrimination laws passed on Tuesday, and the government will seek to raise the age of criminal responsibility next week.

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