Evidence-based solutions to the problem of alcohol-fuelled violence needed

Evidence-based solutions to the problem of alcohol-fuelled violence needed

A University of Wollongong legal academic has added her voice to the debate over the NSW Government’s recently announced response to widespread anxiety about alcohol-fuelled violence.

The plan, which includes mandatory minimum jail terms for alcohol and drug-fuelled violence, has been described as a ‘knee-jerk’ response.

Dr Julia Quilter, a Senior Lecturer in UOW’s Faculty of Law, Humanities and the Arts, and member of UOW’s Legal Intersections Research Centre, has recently completed studies of government responses to alcohol-fuelled violence and the operation of ‘one-punch’ and manslaughter laws in Australia. Based on her research, Dr Quilter has encouraged the O’Farrell Government to pay more attention to the available evidence about how such violence is currently dealt with in the criminal justice system, and to take credit for the good work they have already done.

“We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that, in the wake of Thomas Kelly’s tragic death in Kings Cross in July 2012, the Government recognised the need for a nuanced and multi-faceted response that focused on practical harm minimisation strategies like stricter licensing conditions and improved late night transport,” Dr Quilter said.

It is unfortunate, she said, that the Government has been drawn back to old-fashioned ‘law and order’ thinking which assumes that tough equals effective. It doesn’t. 

The O'Farrell Government yesterday (21 January) unveiled a package of laws aimed at curbing drunken one-punch attacks, including a new offence for fatal assaults involving alcohol and drugs carrying a mandatory minimum sentence of eight years in jail and a maximum of 25 years. Mandatory minimum sentences would also be introduced for nine existing violent offences in cases where alcohol and drugs were involved.

Dr Quilter’s research on the operation of the existing one punch law in Western Australia, and the operation of manslaughter by unlawful and dangerous act in one punch fatality situations in NSW, suggests that a new offence of assault causing death is neither necessary nor desirable.

She said the proposed introduction of mandatory minimum sentences was also unjustified and was likely to prove problematic in practice, for instance by introducing confusion as to where the new crime sits in the hierarchy of personal violence crimes, including in relation to non-fatal assaults and manslaughter.

Dr Quilter said in addition: “There is no evidence that increasing penalties changes offender behaviour, particularly for individuals who are intoxicated and unlikely to be making rational assessments when they engage in violence.” She emphasises that violent offenders who cause death are already being convicted under existing criminal laws.

Dr Quilter’s advice is that a NSW Court of Criminal Appeal guideline judgment on ‘one punch manslaughter’ offers a more appropriate and constructive criminal law reform response to community concerns about alcohol-fuelled acts of fatal violence.

Dr Quilter’s research will be released shortly in two articles, to be published in the Criminal Law Journal and the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology.