To paraphrase a memorable Paul Keating line — “What is Jeremy Rapke, the Victorian DPP on about, he has never had it so good.” Mr Rapke used a 25th anniversary of the creation of his office by the Cain government in 1983 to complain about how difficult it was to lock people up and to secure convictions.
But Mr Rapke’s speech failed to suggest what we all know to be the case — that many cases should never end up before the courts, that restorative justice should be utilised more frequently and that the reason our courts are full is because of our ridiculous war on drugs polices and the way the police and prosecutors insist on mentally ill people being dealt with in the traditional criminal courts.
The legal system now in Victoria and in every other state of Australia is heavily weighted in favour of prosecutors like Mr Rapke. Majority jury verdicts, severe restrictions on the right of the accused to ask questions of alleged victims in s-xual assault and rape cases, a conservative High Court that over the past decade has eroded the rights of the accused, and of course knee-jerk reactions from governments of every political hue have increased sentences and filled our jails.
Mr Rapke bemoans the fact that lawyers are allowed to ask too many questions and that trials take too long. Part of the reason for this surely lies in the fault of his own Office and the Police as much as it does with defence lawyers. And the same goes for his complaint about the increase in the number of successful appeals by defendants. Perhaps this is because the person should not have been brought to trial in the first place, or the police and prosecution did not prepare their case properly.
In New South Wales, Mr Rapke’s equivalent number Chris Cowdery takes on the law and order lobby regularly and suggests a more sensible and reformist approach to criminal justice. Mr Rapke had that chance last night and he flunked it.
He rightly noted that so much criminal activity features mental illness and drugs. But what he failed to do was to question whether or not people with severe mental illness should be dealt with by the traditional criminal justice system in the first place. Surely, given that criminal responsibility is diminished in the case of mental illness and a jail term will only make matters worse, it is time to look at collaborative round table approaches to such cases. In a case of an assault by a person having a psychotic episode surely more is gained by treatment for that individual and for him or her to sit across from the victim and apologising, than a full-blown criminal trial in which neither the victim nor the assailant can get real justice.
And what a pity Mr Rapke didn’t use this high profile opportunity to do what numerous judges, law enforcement officers, lawyers and police makers are doing across the world today — calling for an end to the failed zero tolerance of drugs. Why is Mr Rapke’s office prosecuting users of heroin or ice? Why aren’t we recognising that decriminalising drug use and making it a health issue will help to substantially reduce the profit motive and therefore the organised crime element that is part and parcel of the drug world today.