Sentencing a side issue that won’t end street violence
- Sydney Morning Herald
- Written by: Pat Easton
- In the early hours of 2007, at the age of 18, in a quiet residential street about 500 metres from the epicentre of New Year’s Eve celebrations in Newcastle, I was a victim of senseless violence.
I had arrived at the front step of a friend’s terrace house ahead of a group of friends with whom I had just attended a Silverchair concert.
As I waited for them , a well-built and agitated male in his mid-20s emerged from the shadows across the road, accusing me of staring at him. I hadn’t seen him but that wasn’t going to matter in the moments ahead. Quickly realising that there was no one else around, I attempted to deflect him with a ”nah mate” and walked towards my approaching friends.
No luck. A punch glanced the back of my head and I was dazed. Another connected and I was on the pavement, being kicked in the back. My next clear memory was of my friends containing my attacker as he screamed nonsense about his own importance.
More recently, I have been counting my lucky stars that I escaped unscathed that night. It could have been much worse.
So much has been made clear about what happened to Daniel Christie in Kings Cross. While waiting – in vain, as it transpired – for positive news, we had questions we wanted to be answered. How did this happen? Who would do such a thing? More importantly, how could this have been prevented?
In the next few days, the all too familiar story will play out. A grieving family will lay their son to rest as his life is eulogised on national television. Distraught family members will confirm for us what need not be said: this is a tragic loss.
The story will soon transition from the victim; the cameras will shift, zoom and focus on the antagonist. The accused will have his life and conduct that night flashed across our screens. A criminal defence lawyer will declare to a press pack outside a courthouse that the attacker deserves a fair trial. The trial will take place against a backdrop of saturation media coverage of the accused’s life and personality.
This is a formula repeating itself before our eyes. The next stage is a flurry of business-as-usual rhetoric and chest-beating from political leaders professing to be ”tough on crime”.
As a community, we cannot afford to continue to be swept up in the story and forget the victim or circumstances leading to the event. The underlying societal factors at play will barely get a mention as the story develops.
But what really deserves our energies and attention? The punishment to be meted out to thugs? No. This is a side issue, a distraction from what matters. What matters is ending the violence.
Much has been said of Newcastle’s co-ordinated and widespread community effort in recent years to end alcohol-fuelled street violence. Restricted licensing hours, lockouts, limits on shots, ID scanners and inter-venue communications have all played a role in remarkable reductions in violence.
You will not find in this cocktail any reference to tighter sentencing provisions or new forms of punishment. Instead, it is a comprehensive response appropriate to local conditions directed at preventing violence. This is reflective of a more highly evolved form of crime policy referred to as ”harm prevention”, or ”smart on crime” – one that works.
On this occasion, we have political leaders and organisations urging us to evolve.
”We don’t need knee-jerk reactions and stunts that give the illusion of action but don’t make any real, lasting difference,” Prime Minister Tony Abbott has aptly put it.
One street violence prevention initiative in Melbourne, Step Back. Think, represents a plea for restraint and it may offer guidance for the community response to the broader issue, as well.
What we need now is for us, as a community, to step back, think and consider what is really going to end the violence.
Our focus at this time should be where it matters: fewer victims, less crime and safer communities – not just more punishment. For too long, we have been accustomed to assuming punishment is the be all and end all of crime reduction policy. It isn’t even close.
It is high time that we get smart on crime.
Pat Easton is a final-year law student at Melbourne Law School. He is a former resident of Newcastle and Sydney.