Modern Australian

Altruistic or self-serving? Four things judges consider when sentencing politically-motivated crimes

  • Written by Jamie Walvisch, Lecturer, Monash University

This morning an Extinction Rebellion protester was arrested after hanging from a rope over the William Jolly Bridge in Brisbane, blocking all lanes to peak hour traffic.

And earlier this month in Brisbane, more than 70 climate change protesters were charged with offences that included contravening direction, obstructing traffic and obstructing police.

But where do politically motivated crimes sit on the spectrum of culpability?

Motive is generally irrelevant to criminal law. While there are some offences (such as terrorist offences) that require a specific reason to underpin the criminal act, these are rare. Most of the time, it’s enough to prove the offender intentionally, recklessly or negligently committed the criminal acts.

Altruistic or self-serving? Four things judges consider when sentencing politically-motivated crimes Motive is generally irrelevant in criminal law. But it’s a fundamental part of sentencing law. Darren England/AAP Image

On the other hand, motive is central to sentencing law. Contract killers and mercy killers, for instance, may both be convicted of murder, but contract killers will be sentenced more harshly. They will be considered more blameworthy because of their financial motivations, in greater need of deterrence, and a bigger risk to the community.

Read more: Why does the US sentence people to hundreds of years in prison?

Judges, lawyers and the community at large will frequently agree on which motives are worse than others. For example, it seems clear offenders who commit crimes out of greed should be punished more harshly than offenders who commit crimes out of need.

Unfortunately, the courts have provided little guidance on whether politically-motivated crimes – such as Extinction Rebellion blockades or “Egg Boy” Will Connolly’s egging of far-right politician Fraser Anning – are better or worse than crimes committed for motives like jealousy or vengeance.

Two distinct approaches can be found in past recorded cases where judges have sentenced politically motivated offenders.

A sympathetic approach

In some cases, judges have taken a sympathetic approach, displaying a level of respect for the offenders’ principled behaviour.

While it’s acknowledged they have broken the law and deserve punishment, their actions are not considered as wrongful as the actions of people who break the law for less altruistic reasons. So, judges have reasoned they should be punished more lightly.

An example of this approach can be found in the Pine Gap peace pilgrims case from 2017, when six religious activists breached the perimeter of the Pine Gap military base.

Altruistic or self-serving? Four things judges consider when sentencing politically-motivated crimes Six peace activists were found guilty of trespassing onto a defence facility near Alice Springs, but they were punished relatively lightly. Dan Peled/AAP

In sentencing the offenders, Justice Reeves was influenced by the fact they were “conscientious protestors”. He described their offending as being at “the lowest end of the scale”.

And rather than imprisoning them, as requested by the prosecution, he imposed fines ranging from A$1250 to A$5000.

A harsher punishment

In other cases, judges have taken a far less sympathetic approach. They’ve viewed politically motivated offenders as self-serving individuals who deliberately intend to undermine legitimate laws in pursuit of their own idea of justice.

Not only does this make them more culpable, it also makes them more dangerous and harmful to the community than “common criminals”, the reasoning goes. As a result, they should be punished more harshly.

Read more: Serial killers' fates are in politicians' hands. Here's why that's a worry

This approach can be seen in the sentencing of DJ Astro “Funknukl” Labe, who was convicted of headbutting Tony Abbott.

While Labe only caused minor physical harm, Magistrate Daly considered the offence to be of “considerable seriousness”.

He said the sentence needed to make it clear to those with similar impulses that indulging those impulses would attract a deterrent sentence. He sentenced Labe to six months’ imprisonment.

Four factors in politically-motivated crime sentencing

These cases reveal four key factors that appear to influence a judge’s approach.

The most significant factor is the gravity of the offence. Cases that inspire a sympathetic approach from the judge usually involve relatively minor offences, such as spitting or trespassing.

Read more: Drunk women convicted of assault treated harsher in sentencing than drunk men

A less sympathetic approach has generally been taken when more serious offences have been committed, such as those that pose a threat to life.

The second relevant factor is the use or threat of violence. Judges seem prepared to take a sympathetic approach to serious crimes committed for political reasons, so long as no violence is involved. But this willingness vanishes when offenders use or threaten violence in pursuit of their goals.

Altruistic or self-serving? Four things judges consider when sentencing politically-motivated crimes Astro ‘Funknukl’ Labe was sentenced to six months imprisonment for head butting Tony Abbott to deter other people acting on similar impulses. Rob Blakers/AAP Image

The third is the target of the offender’s actions. Judges have shown little sympathy for offences that have directly targeted parliament, politicians or the courts. These institutions are considered fundamental to our system of government, and are deserving of “the most serious protection”.

Offenders who target premises that are not directly related to the object of the protest may also be seen to be “looking for trouble”, rather than being engaged in genuine protest.

Read more: Is Victoria's sentencing regime really more lenient?

And the fourth relevant factor is the perceived sincerity of the offender’s beliefs. A sympathetic approach is more likely when it’s clear the offenders hold their beliefs sincerely, strongly and were motivated by genuine and deep concerns.

While there is some indication that the purpose of the offender’s protest may also be relevant, there is no clear pattern in this regard.

This is probably due to a judicial reluctance to explicitly express support or disapproval for a particular political cause, given the importance of judicial objectivity.

Authors: Jamie Walvisch, Lecturer, Monash University

Read more http://theconversation.com/altruistic-or-self-serving-four-things-judges-consider-when-sentencing-politically-motivated-crimes-121691

NEWS

Albanese promises a 'productivity project' in an economic vision statement harking back to Hawke and Keating

Anthony Albanese puts a “productivity project” at the centre of his economic agenda in the second of his “vision statements”, which seeks to further distance him from the Shorten era.“Productivity...

Friday essay: George Eliot 200 years on

A portrait of George Eliot at 30 by Alexandre-Louis-François d'Albert-Durade. Her masterpiece Middlemarch is often claimed to be the greatest novel in the English language.Wikimedia CommonsMary Ann Evans took...

Vital Signs. Untaxing childcare is a bold idea that seems unfair, but might benefit us all

Win-win? No-one would be worse off under the UNSW proposal. Over time it should pay for itselfShutterstockAustralia’s system of childcare support is pretty good. It ensures high-quality care is provided...

Five ways parents can help their kids take risks – and why it’s good for them

Have real conversations with your kids about what they're doing, and the potential consequences of their actions.from shutterstock.comMany parents and educators agree children need to take risks. In one US...

a short, shaky history of curing with vibrations

Vibration devices have been used to treat everything from 'hysteria' to hair loss. So Marie Kondo's tuning forks and crystals are nothing new.from www.shutterstock.comYou might remember how Gwyneth Paltrow’s health...

These young Muslim Australians want to meet Islamophobes and change their minds. And it's working

While most research participants believe in the power of contact, dialogue and exchange to transform negative attitudes. ShutterstockThe political influence of the far-right, along with a more salient national security...

Smoke haze hurts financial markets as well as the environment

Sydney is currently blanketed by smoke haze from severe bushfires that have burned through New South Wales. Air pollution levels on Thursday reached hazardous levels for the second time in...

How 1 bright light in a bleak social housing policy landscape could shine more brightly

In the year since the Australian government created the National Housing Finance and Investment Corporation (NHFIC), its bond aggregator, AHBA, has raised funds for affordable housing providers, allowing them...

why does wood crackle in a fire?

If you've ever put wet wood on to a fire, you may have noticed it makes a lot more noise than dry wood. ShutterstockWhy does wood crackle in a fire? –...

Scott Morrison will go into 2020 with a challenging cluster of policy loose ends

Scott Morrison’s government is heading to the end of 2019 amid a debate about its economic judgement and with a number of substantial policy moves started but not completed.Morrison this...

New report shows the world is awash with fossil fuels. It's time to cut off supply

Australia's coal production is expected to jump by 34% to 2030, undercutting our climate efforts.Nikki Short/AAPA new United Nations report shows the world’s major fossil fuel producing countries, including Australia...

Enough ambition (and hydrogen) could get Australia to 200% renewable energy

Hydrogen infrastructure in the right places is key to a cleaner, cheaper energy future.ARENAThe possibilities presented by hydrogen are the subject of excited discussion across the world – and across...

Popular articles from Modern Australian

4 Tips to Prepare for a Home Meditation RetreatWhy You Should Hit the Gym This SpringSaving History One VHS Tape At A Time4 Vaccines Your Teens Should Be GettingStrength Training Tips To Make Your Workout EffectiveTop Fashion Secrets To Look Stylish No Matter The Occasion  How to save money on major home repairsCan I Do Something About My Sensitive Teeth?Climbing Out of a Creative Rut – Strategies for Photographers5 Digital Free Holidays: Take a trek and get back to nature8 Things You’ll Need for a Positive Breast Surgery RecoveryThe Best Sites and Events to See in Melbourne Everything You Wanted To Know About Air CompressorsWhat to Consider When Buying a Home With KidsPlaces to visit on your first trip to North America