Outrage forces child killer sentence shake-up
CLOSED-door plea deals for child killers will come under the microscope in a legal shake-up prompted by outrage over the lenient sentences handed to some of the state's worst criminals.
The Queensland Sentencing Advisory Council's year-long review into the sentences handed to child killers found the state's penalties "do not adequately reflect the undue and significant vulnerabilities of child victims".
More than 60 children were killed in Queensland in the nine years to 2014, and five babies have been killed since the State Government announced the review late last year, with two killed this week.
Attorney-General Y'Vette D'Ath has vowed to adopt the council's eight recommendations, including making the killing of a child under 12 an aggravating feature of manslaughter, which would attract longer sentences.
She has also committed to widening the definition of murder to ensure offenders who show "reckless indifference" to vulnerable victims, including children and the elderly, face harsher mandatory penalties.
The Courier-Mail campaigned for harsher penalties for child killers for two years, highlighting the lenient sentences handed down by the courts.
Researchers found startling discrepancies in sentences handed to those who killed children and adults with the manslaughter of an adult attracting an average custodial sentence of 8.5 years compared to 6.8 years for a child.
"As parents, as carers, we have a responsibility to nurture and protect our children," Ms D'Ath said.
"When you fail to meet that obligation and, even worse still, you callously disregard that child's life and that child dies … because of your actions, then people expect strong action, the Government expects strong action. People want to see the punishment fitting the crimes."
The sentencing council has also called for the Government to investigate plea deals done behind closed doors, saying the system "undermines public confidence in the justice system".
Under sections 13A and 13B of the Penalties and Sentences Act, offenders can be given more lenient sentences for co-operating in the investigation and prosecution of another offender.
However, the victims' families are not privy to the confidential agreements to protect offenders, who could be subject to "violence and intimidation".
"However, in the case of many child homicide investigations, the council does not consider the same protections are necessarily required in all cases, given the parties involved are usually well known to each other and it is often apparent what co-operation had been offered or given," the report says.
"This has the potential to erode community confidence in the sentences imposed, as the fact the sentence has been reduced for a particular reason is not apparent."
The council also called for a review of the impact of the Serious Violent Offender scheme, which it believed has forced down the terms being handed to child killers.
When a defendant is sentenced to 10 or more years of imprisonment, they are automatically declared a serious violent offender and their parole eligibility date is set after they have served 80 per cent of the sentence, rather than the usual one-third mark.
"This review should identify how sentencing levels have been impacted by the introduction of the SVO scheme, and any reforms required to ensure any existing barriers to achieving higher head sentences in Queensland for child manslaughter … are removed," the report says.
Ms D'Ath said the government would commit to investigating the use of 13A and 13b schemes, as well as the way judges apply serious violent offender orders.
"13A has got a particular purpose and we have just got to be really careful of any unintended consequences, but we accept all of the recommendations and advice, which includes having that conversation," Ms D'Ath said. "I know the courts are open to having a conversation about it."
Opposition Leader Deb Frecklington yesterday said the LNP would support the Government's changes but insisted more needed to be done.
She will introduce a private members' bill to bring in her promised new minimum non-parole period of 25 years for the murder of a child and a new offence of child manslaughter with a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years.
Bravehearts founder Hetty Johnston welcomed the shake-up.