Public perception of legal system 'needs attention'

By Paul McInerney
Updated November 5 2012 - 11:44pm, first published December 6 2009 - 10:00am
Judge Paul Conlon says there are strong misconceptions about the legal system in the community. Picture: SYLVIA LIBER
Judge Paul Conlon says there are strong misconceptions about the legal system in the community. Picture: SYLVIA LIBER

A widely held perception that sentences handed down by the courts are too lenient is undermining community confidence in the criminal justice system, according to District Court Judge Paul Conlon.In his first interview since being appointed to the bench in Wollongong three years ago, Judge Conlon said public misconceptions about sentencing had become entrenched because of the lack of an appropriate method of communicating the precise nature of what was happening in the courts on a daily basis. "The statistics will bear out the fact that sentences are not becoming more lenient and are in fact becoming heavier," he said."There are many cases where heavy penalties are imposed but those cases are not always reported in the media."And of course, the media has time and space restrictions placed on them when it comes to the detail which led to the imposition of a particular sentence."Judge Conlon concedes that finding ways to sway the court of public opinion will be difficult.He pointed to a recent survey on public attitudes to the criminal justice system conducted by the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, where 66 per cent of respondents felt that sentences imposed on convicted offenders are too lenient.However, another survey finding may hold the key to changing attitudes."It was significant that a large proportion of the public indicated that they would like to learn more about how judges sentence offenders," Judge Conlon said."Maybe judges need to get out into the community more to help dispel some of the misconceptions the public holds about sentences and the complex procedures involved."Perhaps there could be regular public forums where judges and lawyers can explain the processes and then take questions from the floor." The idea has been welcomed by Wollongong barrister Jane Healey."Community forums on sentencing attended by the judiciary, Crown and defence sound like a great idea," she said."The days of judges and lawyers not actively engaging this sort of debate are thankfully behind us."I would personally find it fascinating to face a panel of critics from the community and to see if I could persuade them that compassion has its place in criminal law."She said the court were not going soft on sentencing: "More people are in jail than at any other time in the history of this state and longer sentences are being handed out."My view is that the perception is generated by talkback radio hosts and politicians engaging in a 'tough on law and order' stance," Ms Healey said.Before his appointment to the bench, Judge Conlon built a reputation in the Illawarra as a clever and fearless Crown prosecutor.He help put some of the region's most notorious criminals behind bars - killers such as Ljube Velevski, who cut the throats of his wife and three young children in 1994, Matthew De Gruchy, who slaughtered his mother, brother and sister in a frenzy in 1996, and double-murderer Mark Valera, who killed former Wollongong lord mayor Frank Arkell two years later.Last year, a Sydney newspaper labelled him Judge Dredd - after the Sylvester Stallone movie character - when he handed out a particularly tough sentence."I believe I have always had a strong sense of justice and what constitutes injustice," he said."I am not afraid to hand down tough sentences when it is warranted and similarly, I am not afraid to back my own judgment when I believe leniency and mercy are called for."Recently a member of the public wrote to me expressing real concern about the leniency of a particular sentence I handed down and which had been reported in the media."I wrote back explaining the sentencing process was a balancing act and I included a copy of my judgment." ... I (later) received a reply from that same person thanking me for the judgment and stating he now understood my thinking and he agreed with the sentence."This just serves to highlight that lack of information can lead to misunderstanding," Judge Conlon said.

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