Is NSW Attorney-General John Hatzistergos badly advised or just plain opportunist? His plan to reduce the sentencing discount that offenders in criminal matters get from the courts for pleading guilty will let corrupt and incompetent police and prosecutors off the hook.

Mr Hatzistergos has announced today that he is going to reduce the discount offenders get for an early guilty plea from 35 percent off their sentence to 25 percent. And to get this maximum discount the offender must plead before the committal hearing – the first step in the criminal process.

Given that this is the man who hates the idea of a bill of rights for the citizens of NSW and who presides over a prison system that locks up mentally ill patients from 3.45pm in the afternoon to 8.15am the next morning, as Crikey revealed last week, it’s perhaps not surprising that Mr Hatzistergos should introduce such a patently unfair change to sentencing laws.

Mr Hatzistergos has told the law and order brigade’s chronicle of choice, the Daily Telegraph today that he wants defendants in criminal matters to fess up and plead guilty to a crime prior to them even being able to test the police evidence at the committal hearing.

There are major flaws in Mr Hatzistergos’ latest sop to the victims’ lobby. Firstly, it means that the police and prosecuting authorities can fit people up more readily with shoddy evidence. The police will use this new rule to bully people into pleading guilty even though the evidence they have against them is weak or has been obtained illegally. Gee, that’s fair!

And just how unfair the change is can be illustrated this way. Let’s say it’s an armed robbery case in which the issue is identification. The police and prosecutors say to the defendant and his lawyers, that they have witnesses who can identify the defendant at the scene of the crime. The defendant denies he was there and as his defence counsel you want to use the committal proceedings to test that identification evidence – in other words see if the police and prosecutors are exaggerating their case about identification. That is your right because it is the prosecution that must prove its case beyond reasonable doubt, not the other way around.

But with the new sentencing discount rules in place, if you do test the police evidence at committal and find it is fairly good and you then advise your client to cut a deal and plead guilty you have the discount on a sentence slashed from 25 percent to 12.5 percent.

In other words, defendants are penalised for exercising their age old right to put the prosecution to its proof!