Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Rational sentencing

In Elias v The Queen [2013] HCA 31 (27 June 2013) a common law principle of sentencing was clarified: a sentence is determined in relation to the offence for which the offender was convicted, it being irrelevant that another offence with a different maximum penalty could have been charged on the same facts.

Therefore it is wrong for a judge to reduce, or to increase, a sentence because a different maximum penalty was provided for another offence that could have been charged.

If the judge were to be distracted by referring to sentences for other offences, the consistency of sentencing for the actual offence for which the offender was convicted could be endangered. The Court referred [28]-[30] to its decision on consistency in Hili v The Queen (discussed here on 10 December 2010).

The prosecutor's choice of charge is not a fetter on the sentencing court's discretion, because a wide range of considerations, including the maximum penalty for the offence charged, go in to determining the final sentence. The maximum penalty is merely a yardstick provided by the legislature, and consideration of it may not necessarily play a decisive role in the final determination. Justice is individualised at sentencing and judges have a wide discretion, unconstrained by the maximum penalty [26].

The judge must not interfere with the choice of charge, and any abuse of the prosecutor's discretion alleged by the defendant can be the subject of a pre-plea application [35]. The separation of the functions of judge and prosecutor makes it just as inappropriate to sentence on the basis that the judge thinks a less serious charge should have been laid, as that it should have been a more serious charge [34].

This is all said in the context of the relevant sentencing legislation, the Sentencing Act 1991 [Vic]. Things may be different in your jurisdiction, which may give rise to questions about how rational a different regime may be if it permits the taking into account of the maximum penalties prescribed for other types of offences. The Sentencing Act 2002 [NZ], s 8(b) does exactly that. Does it thereby introduce risks of inconsistencies, does it abolish fetters, and does it blur the distinction between judge and prosecutor?