Corrections Legislation Amendment Bill 2016

Mr CARROLL (Niddrie) — It is my pleasure to speak on the Corrections Legislation Amendment Bill 2016, a bill that is very important for our corrections system in terms of strengthening it and for public and community safety. Introducing new safety measures for certain corrections officers to protect the community when supervising parolees is one of the measures that will be in this bill. This bill will also ensure that prisoners who are unlawfully released from prison can be returned to custody by police officers. Further, this legislation will also broaden and clarify the grounds for information sharing about offenders for the purposes of the working with children scheme with corrections and parole authorities in Australia as well as other jurisdictions overseas.

This bill does go a long way. A lot of consultation has occurred with stakeholders, and the Department of Justice and Regulation are to be congratulated on the work they have done to get here. When we are dealing with the corrections system that has existed under the previous government and under this government, we are wanting to make sure that our parole system is one of the strongest in the country. This bill will ensure, though, that we are also making sure that our legislation is being tweaked to meet the needs of the 21st century. I welcome the member for Box Hill’s contribution.

This bill does give the security and emergency services group (SESG) of Corrections Victoria a new safety role in supervising prisoners on parole. The SESG is a group of corrections officers who have received special training and experience in responding to serious safety incidents in prisons, including specialised communication and negotiation skills.

This bill does build on earlier reforms that happened in the previous Parliament. On 1 December last year we passed laws that provided corrections officers with similar powers to assist in the supervision of serious sex offenders. This bill will allow the SESG officers to use reasonable force, including extendable batons and capsicum spray, on safety grounds. These powers may be required for serious threats of death or serious injury. These powers will be defensive and aim to ensure the protection of any person, including community corrections staff. No firearms will be used. The other powers in the bill include the use of instruments of restraint such as handcuffs, garment or pat‑down searches of the parolee or resident, and the power to seize items on safety or welfare grounds or due to a risk of reoffending or the risk of breaching a parole order. The parolee may also be alcohol or drug tested. Drugs, weapons or other evidence seized are handed to police as evidence for the prosecution of serious offences.

The SESG may attend on their own, with another ordinary community corrections officer or with a corrections SESG officer. Victoria Police can still attend to ensure community safety. As the member for Box Hill touched on, I have had the pleasure on several occasions of representing the corrections minister not only around this state but also interstate at various forums, and I think Victoria, with Jan Shuard as the leader, is very much at the forefront of ensuring that our corrections system is operating as best it can.

The Labor government under the Premier has made enormous investments in corrections and police resources. We do believe that we need to go further, though, and I think it would be remiss of me not to touch on the Age editorial of 9 May last year. The editorial was headed ‘Why our crowded jails have revolving doors’, and it says Labor at the federal level should be grasping challenges and that it was content to let ‘the Abbott government stumble with its own mistakes’. The article goes on to say:

At the state level, it appears there is still a long way to go before the deep thinking begins inside the coalition. That much is apparent from the half‑witted comment uttered this week by the coalition’s spokesman on corrections matters, Edward O’Donohue, in relation to prisoner recidivism rates.

Further on it says:

What did Mr O’Donohue have to say about the recidivism rates? He suggested the real issue was ‘whether [Premier] Daniel Andrews wants to go soft on crime and wants to back the welfare of criminals instead of safety in our community’.

Essentially Mr O’Donohue has it completely wrong. It is not about ensuring the welfare and safety of criminals. We are about ensuring that our prison system operates as sustainably as it can. With Minister Herbert, who also happens to be the minister for TAFE, you could not get two more important portfolios that have a unique place to work together in terms of courses and training for our prisoners to ensure that they know what opportunities lie on the outside and that they get the opportunity to live a life of purpose once they are finished their sentence.

It is very important to note that rehabilitation is a key principle behind sentencing. If we fail to provide rehabilitation programs for prisoners, it will grossly undermine the whole purpose of sentencing and inevitably lead to prisoners reoffending and becoming hardened, without proper adjustment. We make sure that opportunities are there for prisoners that will ensure community safety is not threatened. It is important to also note that under the Andrews Labor government we are doing everything we can in our power to ensure community safety and that our prison systems operate.

The member for Box Hill tried to highlight that we are experiencing a crime spree and that things are out of control, but I want to remind the member for Box Hill that we are not living in a state of fear at the moment if you go back over the years. And do not take my word for it; take the Chief Commissioner of Police, who himself said at the moment there is a continuing six‑year trend in terms of the rising overall crime rate — and the figures speak for themselves. In 2012 crime rose 5 per cent, in 2013 crime rose 6 per cent, in 2014 crime rose 8 per cent and in 2015 crime only rose 2 per cent. So if you look at the figures and you actually work with statistics and the agencies, you will get there and understand that it is unacceptable.

This government is making massive inroads in terms of tackling the drug ice. I will just highlight an article in the Age of 8 September 2014, right before the last election, which says:

The landmark report into methamphetamine, a powerful and highly addictive stimulant, released in recent days by the Victorian Parliament’s Law Reform Committee needs to become a catalyst for a comprehensive community offensive …

And what did we get? Shortly after, then Premier Denis Napthine announced 11 new sniffer dogs — 8 dogs for regional and rural Victoria. That was his response to tackling the crystal methamphetamine issue. We on this side of the house have under the Premier an ice action task force, an Ice Action Plan, and world’s best evidence from New Zealand that we are adopting right here in Victoria to take on the scourge of crystal methamphetamine.

Added to that, if you go through and look at the reforms that are happening in relation to family violence, this is a government that is not standing, not just passing time, but ensuring that we do everything we can to ensure community safety and to make sure that the operations of our jails all work succinctly and that we have a sustainable prison system.

I think it is very important, though, that this bill, as highlighted by the minister’s second‑reading speech, will ensure for corrections staff that there is the newly defined role of specified officers who will work within the prison offices. These officers will have safety powers when assisting with the supervision of serious sex offenders. The specified officers are intended to be prison officers in the SESG and also to work with community corrections officers.

There will also be a tightening up of the legislation in relation to the unlawful release of prisoners from custody. We might think this does not happen, but we need to make sure that our legislation is fully up to date and that should there be any unlawful release of prisoners the legislation can deal with it. Currently there is a lack of a clear and express power in the Corrections Act for the return of unlawfully released prisoners to custody. This undermines community safety and confidence in the corrections system. The amendments in this bill will ensure that the anomalies are removed and that should there be any issues that come up before a court, the legislation is fully up to speed.

Also I think it is important to note in relation to our prison staff that we are tightening the provisions around liability. With this bill we are ensuring that uncertainty around liability is removed. Essentially we will fix the anomaly and extend exemption from liability uniformly throughout the Corrections Act to ensure that persons who lawfully exercise reasonable force on safety grounds can do so without fear of liability.

I want to commend the bill. I wish it a speedy passage through the Legislative Assembly followed by the Legislative Council. I think both sides of the chamber support this legislation and both sides of the chamber have made important inroads in this area of public policy.