Life sentences save lives: why we need tougher penalties for violent crime

On March 13 Australian’s breathed a collective sigh of relief as serial paedophile Brett Cowan was convicted for the 2003 murder (and attempted molestation i.e. “indecent dealing”) of 13 year old Daniel Morcombe. Cowan was sentenced to life imprisonment, with a 20 year non-parole period, however Queensland Attorney-General Jarrod Bleijie has filed an appeal citing the non-parole period as inadequate and an ineffective deterrent. The bitter irony of Cowan’s case is that had such an appeal been made for his previous offences, Daniel Morcombe might still be alive today. Cowan had twice been convicted of sexual offences against children, and admitted he had abused up to 30 children by age 18. In one incidence in 1993 Cowan left his six year old rape victim for dead with a punctured lung and a slew of other injuries; yet he only served four years behind bars for this crime. Herein lies the problem. Not only was a maximum seven year sentence far too lenient for a crime of such brutality (he originally faced an attempted murder charge but this was dropped in a plea bargain), the parole requirements were also unreasonably easy to meet.

Cowan was transferred from a Northern Territory prison to a Queensland prison four years into his sentence in 1997 so that he could participate in a sex-offender rehabilitation program. This is a decision former parole officer Keith Drew deeply regrets, however he told the ABC he was certain Cowan would reoffend without treatment. After being accepted for parole, Cowan moved in with his uncle Keith Philbrook on request of the parole authorities. Philbrook, a now retired church pastor, says he was unaware of the full extent of Cowan’s crimes. He says Cowan was expected to regularly report to parole officers, however no checks were made when he failed to do so. Cowan eventually moved into his own flat when his behaviour (unexplained late night outings, lying etc.) gave rise to conflict between himself and the Philbrook family, and the rest, unfortunately, is history.

Although human judgement is fallible, the release of predators like Cowan back into the community is not an excusable error. During sentencing for Cowan’s 1993 crime, Justice Mildren described him as “pathological liar”, yet still gave him “the benefit of the doubt” in regards to reoffending. As promised, he completed a rehabilitation program, however there is little evidence to support whether or not such programs are effective in lowering recidivism. Furthermore, the extent of his psychological analysis upon release must be questioned. Cowan may have “appeared” to be remorseful and willing to redeem himself but to what lengths did the parole board go to ensure his progress was genuine? If he was truly remorseful, it would not have taken DNA evidence to procure his confession in 1993, and subsequently, nor would the promise of gang membership have induced his now infamous confession regarding the Morcombe case in 2011 (which upon learning the “crims” were actually under-cover cops he retracted with a not guilty plea, naturally).

Cowan is not the only violent offender to have been impetuously released with dire consequences. Adrian Bayley raped and murdered Melbourne ABC employee Jill Meagher in September 2012 as she was walking home from a night out with friends. Bayley was on parole for the violent rape of five prostitutes at the time, an offence he only served eight years for. About a year before Meagher’s tragic death, Bayley assaulted a man outside a Geelong pub, leaving him unconscious and with a broken jaw. He was sentenced to three months jail for this offence (which was not found to be a breach of his parole as it was not sexual in nature), however he successfully appealed his sentence and was free to walk the streets once more. Bayley’s history of abuse stems back to 1990, when he raped and held hostage his sister’s 16 year old friend in his marital home. Shockingly, Bayley attempted to rape two more teenage girls whilst on bail for this offence and spent a grand total of 22 months behind bars for the crimes. Bayley, like Cowan, was granted an early release for his participation in a sex-offenders rehabilitation program, something he later admitted to “faking his way through”. It should have been clear to the judiciary and parole board that this man was a huge risk to society, particularly women, incapable of change. Finally he has been given a more suitable punishment: a life sentence with 35 years non-parole, however this will not erase the trauma he has caused his victims (many of which will probably remain unknown) nor will it bring back Jill Meagher’s life.

While loss of life was the final catalyst for tougher sentencing in the aforementioned cases, Melbourne man Steven Hunter was able to kill twice before being faced with a (justifiably) harsh penalty. His first victim was 18 year old Jacqueline Matthews, a coworker at a Gladstone supermarket. In April 1986 Hunter stabbed Matthews seven times in the throat and chest after she rejected his sexual advances. He served 13 years for this crime. Hunter went on to commit a series of other offences (including a prison escape and assisting a kidnapping) but he never attracted sentences of more than a few years. On November 10, 2012, he committed his second murder, this time against 22 year old Sarah Cafferkey. An argument had escalated between the pair, after an afternoon of drinking and taking methyl amphetamine together, and ultimately ended with Hunter stabbing Cafferkey 19 times. In August 2013 he was sentenced to life in prison, never to be released.

It cannot be denied that Cowan, Bayley, and Hunter have multiple similarities: their capacity for brutality, extensive criminal histories, willingness to lie–the list continues. One particularly disturbing shared characteristic is the extent to which each of the men endeavoured to cover their crimes. Cowan removed all of Morcombe’s clothing before dumping his body and returned a week later to crush the remaining bones. Bayley extracted and broke Meagher’s sim card in an attempt to obscure incriminating evidence before burying her in a shallow grave 50 kilometres from the murder site. Hunter’s first murder “cover-up” involved setting alight the car in which he’d dumped Matthew’s body. For his second murder, he attempted to conceal Cafferkey’s body in a wheelie bin encased with cement. Such actions reveal that it was never the intention of these men to get caught and for this reason, along with the fact that they would deny their crimes until confronted with the overwhelming evidence against them, it is reasonable to assert that any remorse they felt was not for their victims but for themselves.

It is clear that each of these individuals, and others like them, needed to be separated from society as early possible. The sinister elements of their personalities are deeply ingrained, beyond the reach of rehabilitation, and unfortunately it was only through horrific consequences that authorities were able to accept this. One only needs to take to social media to witness the community outrage expressed over the lenient sentencing afforded to these men for their previous crimes. Some individuals even call for the reinstatement of capital punishment, however the ethical implications that resulted in the abolishment of the practice in Australia cannot and should not be forgotten. It is better for heinous criminals to be confined in prison, constantly reminded of their despicable crimes, than to relieve them of their actions through death (something some of them would want, as illustrated by Bayley’s attempted suicide). However, the issue of overcrowded, high-cost tax payer funded prisons must also be tackled. There is no simple solution to this problem, but offering plea bargains and rehabilitation opportunities to low profile offenders (e.g. those with petty theft and drug offences), and not to their violent and depraved counterparts, might be a start. Until then, the lives of the innocent must take precedence over any economic concerns and the utmost must be done to take dangerous individuals like Cowan, Bayley and Hunter off the streets and keep them away.

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Violence related violence

Late last month, NSW premier Barry O’Farrell fast tracked legislation designed to combat “alcohol fuelled violence” through parliament. The new laws to be enforced from February 24th include 1.30am lockouts for clubs in Sydney’s Kings Cross precinct, 3am last drinks/venue close and bottle shop closure at 10pm, as well as tougher penalties for those who commit violent acts under the influence of substances. It won’t be surprising if the rest of Australia soon follows suit (except perhaps Melbourne, who already trialled voluntary lockouts in 2008 and concluded they didn’t work), given the recent community uproar over all too common “one-punch” deaths.

While the laws might help concerned citizens sleep better at night, it is foolish to believe they will completely fix the problem at hand. The deaths that sparked this knee-jerk response were a result of incidents that occurred at 9 and 10pm respectively, and thus it is fair to say lockouts would not have prevented them. The offenders both had a history of violent behaviour, for which they suffered little consequence. Yet these incidents were still touted as “alcohol related violence”. Citing alcohol for the sole cause of such neanderthal like behaviour is a copout. While alcohol is known to impair judgement and lower inhibitions, it does not exempt people from their actions, nor does it completely change a person’s nature. Placid people do not simply become aggressive when drunk, the aggression has to be an already underlying facet of their personality (read more about that here, here, or here). Yes, the offenders in one-punch assaults are often intoxicated, but it goes without saying that many other young revellers get “merry” on a regular basis and manage (a great feat) not to hit anyone.

Politicians and advocates have cited Newcastle’s lockout laws, introduced in 2008, as proof that limiting public access to alcohol is the best way to curb the violence. The city was among the most violent in the country, and the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research released figures claiming alcohol related assaults have reduced by 30 per cent since the introduction of the laws. What the studies do not take into account is that the decrease in violence could just be correlated to an overall decline in people going out (or the fact that alcohol related violence has also reduced in similar sized towns without the lockout system). What’s more, Newcastle’s population is less than an eighth of Sydney’s, so to apply the same model and expect the same results is illogical. Forcing thousands of patrons out onto the street at a regimented time is bound to cause problems, especially when it coincides with the taxi changeover. Crowds will be left with no way to get home (which, given the city’s physical expanse, is not always a close destination) and frustrated punters are likely to become more aggressive. To avoid the restrictions, higher numbers may choose to frequent night spots outside of the “Cross”, so in the event of violence Police will no longer be concentrating on a localised area.

In addition to the logistical repercussions, the live music scene is also likely to be suffer. While some (misinformed) individuals, like NSW Police Minister Mike Gallacher, have suggested the live music industry is already dead, the figures suggest otherwise. A 2009/10 report by Ernst & Young found the live music industry added $1.21 billion into the national economy, supported almost 15,000 full-time jobs, and attracted nearly 42 million patrons annually. There is evidence to suggest that crowds attending live music gigs consume less alcohol than other punters, and are less likely to be involved in anti-social behaviour, yet 143 live music venues (out of a total of 220 licensed premises) will be subjected to the new laws. The fall in revenue will catalyse job losses for bar staff, cleaners, and security, and ultimately result in less performances. The restrictions will also stifle the electronic dance music scene, as many DJs (including international acts) are booked for set times of 1am onwards. If Sydney wants to identify itself as a “global” city, forcing citizens and tourists to go to bed at 3am is not the way to go about it.

So what can be done to reduce the violence without detriment to the freedoms of law abiding citizens and the late night industry as a whole? Plenty. Large capacity venues should be fitted with compulsory I.D. scanners to ensure black-listed trouble makers are refused entry, and smaller venues should use similar, “manual” list systems where possible. Bouncers should be better trained (sometimes their unnecessary force exacerbates aggression in patrons, which later gets passed on to third parties) and have more interaction/co-operation with the police when ejecting people from a venue, so that aggressive individuals are arrested or issued with move on notices rather than left to roam the streets. Bar staff should exercise their right (and duty) to refuse service to aggressive, disrespectful or overly intoxicated individuals, and should be reprimanded (along with the licensee and venue) for not doing so. Problem venues should be targeted and have their licenses reviewed if necessary. Violent offenders (both intoxicated and sober) should face tough penalties on their first offence, because good behaviour bonds are clearly not an effective deterrent. Public figures like sporting stars should also be subjected to harsher penalties for violent behaviour, both on and off the field, and should never be glorified. There should be crackdowns on steroid use, education programs in schools, more emphasis on live music and gigs to encourage healthy social interaction etc. etc. These solutions may require more resources, time and implementation than arbitrary lockout laws, but they do much more to address the culture of violence and aggression Australia is grappling with. Unfortunately, until Mr O’Farrell (and the rest of the NSW senate) realises he is dealing with a complex, systemic issue, the blanket approach solution will continue to be favoured.

Why good girls are irrelevant

This is a response to the Why Good Girls Are Like Unicorns article. Its premise is that men are finding it increasingly difficult to come by good, untouched girls to settle down with; that is, once the men themselves have decided it is time to restrain their own sexual exploits. It is just one of the all too common views that exemplifies how far we still have to go when it comes to issues of gender equality and sexual freedom. The mere concept of a “good girl” is archaic and offensive. Relating ones sexual experience (or lack thereof) to their overall “purity” or worth as a person is absurd. Sex is a basic physical need; without it, the human race would cease to exist. Humans (as well as a selection of other animals) have evolved in such a way that enables them to enjoy sex for pleasure, rather than just a means of procreation. We have created “toys” and accessories, pornography, clubs, kinks: the list goes on, all to maximise the pleasure we receive from sex. We have also developed contraceptive methods to minimise the risk of problematic bi-products, like STIs and unwanted babies. Despite the prevalence (i.e. everyday occurrence) of sex within society, it is still an issue that many regard as shameful, and can often be used against individuals as a point of ridicule.

The author of the aforementioned article seems to hold the belief that women are only worthy of “wife-ing” if they are innocent and virginal, and that men should expect this standard in all potential partners, regardless of their own sexual history.  The article upholds the ethos that promiscuous women are fun to take advantage of but should never be considered when sourcing real, “meaningful” connections. According to the author, women of considerable sexual experience are not even capable of intelligent conversation. I beg to differ. Someone’s sexual history alone cannot define the strength of their character, regardless of gender. Having had multiple sex partners in the past does not discount someone’s ability to thrive in a committed relationship, it does not make them a bad person and it certainly does not make them broken.

The concept of a “used” woman irrefutably likens women to a commodity; nothing more than mere objects. You wouldn’t expect to pay as much for a used car as a brand new one, and thus, unfortunately, the same fallacious logic is applied to women. Under inherent chauvinistic ideals “good” or “unused” women are seen as harder to earn, while women who are willing to give themselves (read: sex) up straight away are deemed worthless. This is fundamentally flawed reasoning because women are people, not objects. They are just as capable of enjoying and initiating sex as their male counterparts, and when they choose to do so it does nothing to disparage their moral standing. A woman should not feel pressured to hold back on her sexual desires for fear of diminishing her perceived worth because sex is not (for the most part), and should not be treated as, a commercial transaction.

This is not to say that people’s sexual encounters should be completely devoid of merit (however it is up to the individual to make such choices). Mutual respect and consent between partners are key ingredients of a healthy sex life, both in the context of a one-night stand and a committed relationship. It is when these factors are ignored that ones sexual behaviour should be scrutinised.

Sex itself is not an immoral act; it is the intent behind it that determines it as a vice. The way in which someone seeks/carries out their sexual encounters is more reflective of their personality than the number of partners they have had. A few examples: sex forced upon someone who doesn’t want it/is unable to consent, sex used as a tool of manipulation (emotional, physical, to gain a position of power), when sex poses a deliberate or careless risk to someone’s health (in regard to STIs and unwanted pregnancy), when sex breaks the agreed commitments and expectations of a relationship etc. etc. All such circumstances can, and unfortunately do, occur irrespective of a person’s “number”.

I believe we need to remove shame from our sexual discourse in order to adopt healthier, progressive attitudes. De-stigmatising sex encourages openness around the subject, which is vital for proper discussion on what is right and wrong sexual behaviour. If people understand the circumstances in which sex can be harmful to themselves or others, more can be done to prevent such circumstances from occurring. People (men especially) might also finally stop worshipping the concept of being virginal. To be considered a virgin in Western society, one is generally expected to never have had traditional (penis-vagina) intercourse. If this logic were applied to a lesbian, who had never engaged in heterosexual intercourse, she would technically never have lost her virginity.  This renders the obsession with a person’s “number” largely irrelevant, as there are probably many sexual partners that go unaccounted for.

Furthermore, the idea that virginity is “lost” is misguided, and perpetuates the notion that a woman’s worth is directly correlated to her innocence. Virginity is a social construct. It can be argued that the presence of the hymen is physical proof a woman/girl is a virgin (hymen reconstruction surgery and insertable artificial hymens are real products women use to convince their partners they are desirably innocent), however it has long been known the hymen can break for a variety of non-sexual reasons. Even synonyms of the word virgin imply that sexually inexperienced women are more appealing than women with a sexual history (read: uncorrupted, undefiled, unsullied, sinless etc.). Virginity is a non-issue for men; it is not tied to some ridiculous religious ideal of purity and sinlessness (the Virgin Mary supposedly gave birth to a child without ever having sex, how are we meant to compete with that?). Men are expected to become sexually active sooner rather than later, which is problematic in itself, however their “virginity” is not treated with the same sanctity (or commercial value) as women’s.

An individual’s choice to engage in, or abstain from, sex should be an entirely personal decision, completely free from judgement. Neither decision makes one person better than the other and it is because of the unwillingness to accept this that we continue to live in a society filled with sexual hang-ups and inequality.  Sexuality does not define a person; it is merely a component of the personality, albeit an important one. Ultimately, it is the people needlessly preoccupied with sexual history who are at a loss.  Instead of embracing sex they let their warped judgement mask the good qualities in others, and miss out on getting to know (and potentially love) a lot of interesting people.