Recent commentary on sentencing principles in Queensland have seen public calls for ‘maximum sentences’ for those convicted of murder or manslaughter where the victim is a child. This reflects a naivety and ignorance of current laws and Queensland sentencing principles.
A ‘life’ sentence in Queensland may be imposed by the courts for people convicted of one of a number of offences, including manslaughter, rape or burglary just to name a few. Any person convicted of murder must be sentenced to life imprisonment by the courts.
An offender sentenced to life imprisonment is sentenced to imprisonment until the day they die. The sentence expires only upon the offender’s death. A person sentenced to life will be eligible to apply for parole after a set period of time, often 20 years, however, it can be longer. However, it is important to note that simply because someone is eligible to apply for parole does not mean that they will be successful in their application for parole.
Obviously, a number of factors are considered in determining parole applications, especially where the offender has been sentenced to life imprisonment. The parole board considers factors such as the nature of the original offence and the safety of the public before releasing a person to parole.
Eroding the sentencing discretion of our learned judiciary by imposing mandatory life sentences for offenders convicted of manslaughter, necessarily eliminates sentencing discretion. This prevents judges imposing sentences that reflect the circumstances of each offender that comes before the court.
The death of any person, let alone a child, particularly in a manner that constitutes a criminal offence is a tragedy. However, to categorically punish all offenders sentenced for such offences, in the same way, could see excessively harsh punishment for certain offenders. Take, for example, a person convicted of ‘vehicular manslaughter’. The conviction could have come after causing a motor vehicle accident due to momentary inattention and as a result of that accident a child dies. Calls for ‘maximum sentencing’ for killing a child would see that person receiving the same sentence as a person who abducts and kills a child.
This is why mandatory sentencing is problematic and why sentencing discretion is so important.