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Life isn’t that Complicated

It is not uncommon for victims of serious crime to misunderstand the sentencing regime in Tasmania. This is not because the sentencing regime is beyond comprehension, but often because prosecutors give witnesses false ideas about the outcomes offenders face in the Justice System and about what the parole system means within that world view. A classic misunderstanding is about Life Sentencing.

To be clear, a Life Sentence is no more a literal definition than it is to say the Governor ever took personal succour from the sentencing of men to serve at the Governor’s Pleasure (also known as The Key, or more recently The Dangerous Criminals Act). Life Sentence or the Term of his/her Natural Life, at least in Tasmania during my lifetime, has not meant that someone will never be released. Although a Life Prisoner can be held, if circumstances and behaviour warrant, for their entire lives. Thus, the term Life in that particular phrase.

Tasmania last executed a prisoner at Campbell Street Gaol (from memory) in 1946 – the death penalty was abolished in Tasmania in 1968. At that point we commuted anybody sentenced to death into Life prisoners under a new Act invoking mandatory Natural Life sentences for murder and treason that were implemented through to 1994. At that point, Tasmania enacted the Criminal Code Amendment (Life Prisoners and Dangerous Criminals) Act 1994 that allowed for truth in sentencing and for existing Life Prisoners to apply for resentencing at the Court’s discretion under the new Law. In fact, Life Prisoners were told their only path out of Tasmanian prisons was through this application process. The Court could impose 16 years… or restate the Life sentence (with or without a non-parole period)… or any appropriate sentence in-between.

So what does Life mean? Under the post-death-penalty regime it meant that a life prisoner in Tasmania was to serve a minimum of 10 years in prison (although well connected people from high society served less and some served as long as 15 years) before review by the Parole Board of Tasmania. If, and except for the worst few cases when, the life prisoner was granted parole there would be conditions they had to meet for the rest of their life while serving parole.

Limitations on their lives after prison included being able to be dragged back to prison at any time at no notice for any trivial reason the Parole Board deemed appropriate. This could be indeterminate in length, without great explanation and extend for many extra years of incarceration. On parole they would be subject to ongoing drug and alcohol testing. Monitoring of the parolees’ living, work, social and relationships. Every element of the life of these parolees would be under constant scrutiny, judgement and possible revocation of parole as a result.

In this sense, a Life Sentence or the Term of his/her Natural Life as a sentence in Tasmania (one and the same thing) resulted in a sentence of between 10 years and life, with the inevitable life parole period (if released).

Why was this a bad idea? Life (or Natural Life) was a political sentence. Simple. Courts didn’t decide the punishment of Life Imprisonment; it was a mandatory sentence invoked by politicians. This meant that prisoners were political footballs, some prisoners were held or released with political motivation and there was constant political pressure to revoke or parole inmates based on social status and political pressure. This, in a democratic system based on separation of State from the Courts, is a bad idea. A political prisoner is a political prisoner – don’t be confused by their crime. Any time you hear mandatory sentencing you should understand this means political prisoners. That vital separation of Court vs State is crossed.

So now, in Tasmania, the convicted murderer can be sentenced across a range of finite boundaries OR to a finite boundary with a Life maximum OR to the Term of their Natural Life without a non-parole period. A Lifer with a non-parole period is sentenced in this regime to extended Life Parole after serving inside prison as a constraint based on the crime they committed and the circumstances of their case.

In this manner you will not have a mercy killer serve the same sentence as the ruthless killer of a policeman doing his/her duty, for example.

Now that you understand this regime and the history of Tasmanian sentencing then please desist from saying tripe like Life should mean a prisoner comes out in a box. In the real world, a prison sentence of 20 years automatically translates to 10 years until being eligible for parole (unless a greater non-parole period is declared).. it is never meant as 20 years imprisonment in the naive sense. And expecting that to be otherwise for Life sentencing is not intelligent conversation. It goes beyond naive; it borders on ignorant. Often these claims appear in conversation based on victims of crime objectives or public prosecutor mismanagement of victim and witness expectations during trial and sentencing.

Why most murderers are released is quite simple. They are extremely unlikely to reoffend; they are expensive to keep inside prisons; we subscribe to a humanitarian ideal that the death penalty is wrong because it is murder by the State as revenge (therefore not Justice); and people who are 20 and do dumb things can be productive members of society at 30 or 40 or 50 years of age. The criminals are also sons and daughters. At what point does a revenge cycle complete? There is no closure in murder – through a death penalty, life imprisonment or otherwise.

None of this is complicated. The term Life in a sentence is well defined. It means what it means. The sentence never ends. Getting out of prison is based on another principle entirely – that of parole. Refer back to my earlier article explaining parole.

Next time someone trouts off about life meaning life in sentencing in Tasmania… point to this article.

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About the Author

Steven Clark Steven Clark - the stand up guy on this site

My name is Steven Clark (aka nortypig) and I live in Southern Tasmania. I have an MBA (Specialisation) and a Bachelor of Computing from the University of Tasmania. I'm a photographer making pictures with film. A web developer for money. A business consultant for fun. A journalist on paper. Dreams of owning the World. Idea champion. Paradox. Life partner to Megan.

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