Government introducing new laws, harsher penalties if the victim is an emergency worker


Longer mandatory sentences for attacking, killing emergency workers

Jane Lee and Richard Willingham June 25, 2014 The Age newspaper

 People who attack emergency services workers will face at least three years behind bars and those who kill police officers an average 30 years in jail under new state laws. The Napthine government announced the laws on Wednesday.

  The reforms, first promised at the 2010 election, are the latest in a string of harsher penalties expected to come into effect this year, including longer sentences for serious offences such as murder and commercial drug trafficking. They are also expected to add to Victoria's record prison population, which the government expects to grow to up to 6985 prisoners next year.

Premier Denis Napthine said increased sentences would apply to anyone who attacks police, paramedics, firefighters, protective services officers, State Emergency Services staff and lifesavers who are on duty. They will also apply to nurses, doctors and other hospital staff who provide emergency treatment.

 Assaulting, obstructing or delaying paramedics providing care or treatment carries a six-month mandatory minimum sentence under current laws. The murder of police and emergency service workers carries no special punishment. 

 Attorney-General Robert Clark said attacks on emergency workers fuelled by alcohol and drug use had increased. The laws were designed to send a message that this would not be tolerated: "Everyone deserves the right to be as safe as possible when they go to work, especially those who willingly face very dangerous situations such as those involving drug and alcohol-fuelled violence." The penalties will not apply if offenders can demonstrate a "special reason" why they should not, including co-operation with law enforcement authorities or proven mental impairment, he said.

 Criminal lawyer Tim Gattuso said the reforms would ultimately lead to more people in prison for longer periods of time.

 ‘‘With the proposed abolition of suspended sentences, the pressures on the prison system are going to significantly increase in the coming months,’’ he said. ‘‘The introduction of any baseline sentences and mandatory minimum sentences is particularly concerning when we have a prison system that is struggling to cope, especially given the impact that changes to the parole system is already having in that regard.’’ 

 He questioned whether the cost of expanding the prison system ‘‘could be better spent elsewhere, including treatment of the causes of crime, such as drug addiction ...’’

 Mr Gattuso did not think longer penalties would deter would-be offenders acting ‘‘in the heat of the moment or when they're drug-affected’’, and was ‘‘not sure the government should be creating different classes of victim by saying that the lives and safety of some people should be rated more highly than others, notwithstanding the important roles they perform’’.

  “The retention of judicial discretion can and should deal with matters on a case by case basis as opposed to any attempt by government to create a ‘one-size-fits-all’ offence,” he said.

Almost 2500 offences relating to the assault of emergency services workers were recorded in 2012-13. It is unknown how many of these offences resulted in convictions. 

 Police Association secretary Ron Iddles said his predecessor Greg Davies had lobbied both sides of government to support harsher penalties for assaults on emergency services members.

 "Our officers now deal with a lot more incidents that could end up in an assault, particularly when you're dealing with serious problems like ice," Detective Senior Sergeant Iddles said.

 There were 2046 assault police (summary)offences recorded, an increase of almost 11 per cent compared to 2011-12, and almost 400 assault police on duty offences.

 Nine offences of assault operational staff (ambulance) were recorded last year, but the number of assault PSO offences leapt from nine to 45.

 Ambulance Victoria has said that the level of physical assaults on paramedics remained at the same level between 2006 and 2011.

 Ambulance Employees Australia’s state secretary Steve McGhie welcomed the harsher penalties but said they would not increase the number of people charged for assaulting emergency workers.

Mr McGhie estimated about 10 to 20 paramedics were assaulted on the job a week in metropolitan Melbourne alone. But he said police did not charge most attackers who were drug-affected or psychologically impaired at the time of the assault because they did not believe they were likely to be convicted.

 Mr McGhie said attacks on paramedics should be treated differently than common assaults because "they get assaulted in the course of their duties".

"There should be no excuses for that and if there are, the court should hear them and take that into account rather than the person not be charged at all," he said.

 "Anyone who chooses to assault an emergency services worker should be charged," he said.