Circle sentencing is not currently an option at Coffs Harbour Local Court but is offerred at Nambucca and Kempsey Local Courts.
Circle sentencing is not currently an option at Coffs Harbour Local Court but is offerred at Nambucca and Kempsey Local Courts.

Positive signs for circle sentencing in Coffs Harbour

FOR the first time research has shown that Aboriginal people who participate in Circle Sentencing have lower rates of imprisonment and recidivism than Aboriginal people who are sentenced in the traditional way.

Circle Sentencing is not currently an option at Coffs Harbour Local Court but is available at Nambucca and Kempsey Local Courts.

Chief Executive Officer for the Coffs Harbour and District Local Aboriginal Land Council Nathan Brennan says it makes sense to offer the service on a regional basis and potentially expand it to Coffs Harbour.

"Nambucca and Coffs Harbour are linked because we're all Gumbaynggirr. We're all connected, we're all family so it would makes sense from a regional implementation point of view."

Gumbaynggirr lands stretches from the Nambucca River to around the Clarence River and out west to the Great Dividing Range.

The new study is by the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR).

Circle Sentencing is an alternative sentencing method for Aboriginal offenders available in 12 NSW Local Courts.

Under Circle Sentencing, the magistrate works with Aboriginal elders, victims and the offender's family to determine an appropriate sentence.

The BOCSAR study examined three issues:

1.The probability of imprisonment.

2.The probability of at least one reoffence within 12 months.

3.The number of days between sentencing and the offender's first reoffence.

After controlling for a variety of defendant-case characteristics (e.g., prior offending, offence severity, age, gender and socio-economic status), the study found that, when compared to Aboriginal offenders sentenced in the traditional way, offenders participating in Circle Sentencing:

- Are 9.3 percentage points less likely to receive a prison sentence.

- Are 3.9 percentage points less likely to reoffend within 12 months.

- Take 55 days longer to reoffend if and when they do.

BOCSAR Executive Director, Jackie Fitzgerald, said it was encouraging to find that Circle Sentencing has beneficial outcomes for participants given its strong support among Aboriginal communities.

"Past research has shown that Circle Sentencing reduces barriers between Aboriginal communities and the courts and improves confidence in the sentencing process. This is the first study, however, to find an association between Circle Sentencing and reoffending and imprisonment."

Nathan Brennan, CEO of the Coffs Harbour Local Aboriginal Land Council.
Nathan Brennan, CEO of the Coffs Harbour Local Aboriginal Land Council.

What is circle sentencing ?

Over the 2016-17 financial year, Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders constituted 2.8 per cent of the Australian population but 27.6 per cent of the prison population.

A number of restorative justice initiatives have been explored to try to tackle the over representation and Circle Sentencing is one of these.

Circle Sentencing has been in operation in NSW since 2002.

It is an alternative sentencing option, with the full sentencing power of a traditional court, for Aboriginal offenders that meet a specific set of conditions.

The idea is to include the local Aboriginal community in the sentencing process. In practice, this typically involves the presiding magistrate working with a group of Aboriginal elders, victims, respected members of the community and the offender's family to determine the appropriate sentence.

It was first introduced to the Nowra Local Court in 2002. Since then it has expanded to 12 other NSW Local Courts including Kempsey and Nambucca.