Get out of jail free - It's the 'rort of the decade'

Hornsby & Upper North Shore Advocate

Thursday 11 March 2004
IF YOU are facing a drink-driving charge at Hornsby Local Court you have a much better chance of getting off than in many other courts and this inconsistency has provoked calls for a dramatic overhaul of the system.

A report published by the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics reveals some huge discrepancies in the way courts treat drink-driving, with 53 per cent of those charged with having a low-range Proscribed Concentration of Alcohol (PCA) dismissed or conditionally discharged at Hornsby, compared to a state average of 43 per cent and just 11 per cent in Windsor.

Pedestrian Council chairman Harold Scruby blames section 10 of the NSW Crimes Act which gives judges the discretion to reduce or waive penalties entirely and said drink-drivers should automatically be “incarcerated”.

But both vice president of the Civil Liberties Council David Burney and Hornsby police crime co-ordinator Terry Lewis said magistrates need to be able to use their discretion.

“People think tougher regimes are always a good idea,” Mr Burney said. “But to take away all discretion is an over-reaction.”

Inspector Lewis said it is important to remember “not every crime is the same”.

Statistics show a big increase in the use of section 10 over the last 10 years, which Mr Scruby said showed it was being used irresponsibly.

He said many Hornsby and upper North Shore drink-drivers are able to afford better lawyers and able to demonstrate their hitherto “unblemished behaviour” increasing their chances of escaping penalty.

“These decisions are increasing the road toll,” he said. “Section 10 is one of the greatest rorts of this decade.”

Mr Scruby said the best way to rehabilitate drink-drivers is to take away their licence.
He said penalties for first-time offenders still need to be severe.

“The magistrates are more concerned with rehab than getting these people off the road,” he said.

“Magistrates have lost their sense of perspective of the damage drink-driving does to the community.”

But Mr Burney said “hefty fines and jail terms” are already enforced on repeat offenders.
“There has to be some sort of leniency for the magistrates. You can't have a hard-and-fast rule for everyone,” he said.

Report author and Crime Statistics Bureau director Don Weatherburn said magistrates' use of section 10 probably reflects differences in their ideas on deterrence versus rehabilitation.
“The problem at the moment is that the law does not clearly indicate when it is appropriate to rehabilitate drink-drivers and when it is appropriate to deter them,” Dr Weatherburn said.

He suggested the law may have to be amended.