Current sentences for the manslaughter of a child are inadequate and do not reflect community expectations, according to a report released on Wednesday by the Queensland Sentencing Advisory Council (QSAC).
Attorney-General Yvette D’Ath asked the council to carry out a 12-month review of child homicide sentencing in October last year.
The council made eight recommendations in its final report, including that a new “aggravating factor” be applied when victims are under 12 years old – forcing courts to consider the defencelessness and vulnerability of the victim.
Other recommendations include improving support for victims’ families and publishing sentencing remarks for child homicide matters the day they are handed down, or soon after.
Council chairman John Robertson said the review was complex and challenging.
“At the heart of this reference was the question: Is sentencing for child homicide adequate, and an appropriate reflection of community views?” Mr Robertson said.
“Our final position is that it is not. Particularly in those cases involving the direct use of violence against a very young child who is uniquely vulnerable and defenceless.”
The final report found adding a new statutory aggravating factor was the best approach for reform as it would retain sentencing flexibility.
“This approach will allow courts to impose a sentence that is just in the individual circumstances of the case, while making clear the expectation that higher sentences should be imposed.”
QSAC released a consultation paper earlier this year, in which it noted that the majority of unlawful killings in Queensland involving a child victim result in a conviction for manslaughter rather than murder.
The paper also acknowledged a number of challenges in sentencing child homicide offences including difficulty in determining the cause of death and difficulty establishing a clear intent by an offender to harm or kill the child.
Shane Burke and Kerri-Ann Goodwin’s son Hemi was killed when he was 18 months old, and said the recommendations were a step in the right direction.
“We’ll wait and see if this actually works, if the recommendations are implemented and if the framework is set up right – if so, great, if not we’ll keep going,” Mr Burke said.
“Most of the recommendations are around information sharing, which is great but it seems like there’s only one other recommendation that goes towards tougher penalties, which is the new aggravating factor.
“We thought we were going to a murder trial but then all of a sudden they took the manslaughter plea and that was it. They asked us if we agreed. We said ‘no’ and they said ‘it doesn’t matter, we’re doing it anyway’. There definitely needs to be more transparency around that.”
Government will seek to expand definition of murder
Ms D’Ath said the government would seek to expand the definition of murder so people who show “reckless indifference” to human life could be sentenced to life in prison.
“We will be widening the definition of murder under the criminal code to send a clear message that those who have callous disregard for human life, where it leads to the death of a child, or a vulnerable person, that if convicted you will face life imprisonment,” Ms D’Ath said.
“People want to see punishment fitting these very serious crimes. These gut-wrenching, heart-breaking crimes of young children dying at the hands, most of the times, of their parents or carers.
“Let’s face it, when a child has been continually physically or sexually abused and that abuse causes such horrific injuries that it leads to the death of a child, no one, no one thinks that that is anything other than murder.
“We need to make sure the police and prosecutors have the tools they need to pursue those charges and when they get those convictions see people facing life in prison.”
Ms D’Ath said the government would implement all of QSAC’s eight recommendations.
Mr Robertson said he hoped the report would provide some comfort to the families of victims.
“These cases are truly horrific,” Mr Robertson said.
“Today as we release the report we’ve sent a message to the families of each of the victims that had the courage to come to us and come to us they did on a number of occasions.”