Victorians could pay over $500k for MP’s crimes. How’s that for justice?

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Former Victorian cabinet minister Russell Northe’s blatant abuse of his position of power, and his betrayal of the public warrants strict punishment. He deserves no special privileges because of his former office. But his sentencing highlights the need for urgent reform from his former Spring Street colleagues.

On Wednesday, the former state parliamentarian, who served as the Member for Morwell for 16 years and served in the ministry of the Napthine government, was sentenced to 21 months in prison by the Victorian County Court after pleading guilty to misconduct in public office offences that included claiming over $175,000 in false administrative expenses.

Russel Northe (centre) arrives at the County Court on Wednesday.Credit: AAP

He was given a non-parole period of 12 months and reportedly wept with his head in his hands throughout the hearing. Northe told the court that his crimes had been fuelled by alcohol and gambling addictions.

Northe’s actions are a serious breach of the law and must be punished. There is no room to allow those in power to use their positions for personal financial gain. However, his case highlights the crucial need for criminal reform.

In sentencing him to prison time, it is now the taxpayers who will ultimately pay for his crimes thanks to the state’s wasteful, unproductive, and expensive imprisonment of people who pose a minimal physical safety threat to the community.

In Victoria, it costs $196,200 per year to house one prisoner. This means that, should Northe serve his full sentence, taxpayers will pay over $343,000 to incarcerate Northe on top of the amount originally stolen. This brings the public total to well over half a million dollars.

Unpopular as it may be to say, the community will not benefit from Russell Northe’s incarceration. Research consistently shows that for non-violent criminals like Northe, other punishments are more effective in rehabilitating offenders long-term.

Approximately 40 per cent Victoria’s prison population have been incarcerated for non-violent offences. Each year Victoria spends in excess of half a billion dollars on the incarceration of low-risk, non-violent offenders who pose a limited threat to community safety. Imagine what could be done with those funds if these offenders were made to pay for their crimes in a more effective way.

Prisons are the most expensive form of retribution. Their use should be reserved for isolating those who pose a physical threat to the safety of our community.

Instead of housing the 57-year-old as a guest of the state, he should be made to repay the stolen funds and penalised in the form of an offender super-taxation levy – a sanction developed by world-leading sentencing expert Professor Mirko Bagaric of Swinburne University.

The levy proposes an offender pay a one-off fine equal to the amount they wrongfully obtained, as well as repay double the amount. In Northe’s case this would be around $525,000 – close to what taxpayers are set to part with for a full prison stint and the wrongfully obtained amount itself.

This levy would see two-thirds of all income derived by an offender payable as taxation. The enforced repayment is the punishment and a deterrent to other would-be criminals and to the temptation of reoffending. The levy is a punishment that will be with an offender for a considerable period of time; it does not let them off the hook for their crimes, and it ensures the community is not further burdened by the expense of incarceration.

Before his sentencing, Northe was working at a supermarket and earning a weekly wage, to which this levy could have been applied.

In addition to this offender levy, imposing other conditions, such as home detention, curfews, and mandatory community service, have also proven to be successful in the rehabilitation of non-violent criminals.

At least two of his former colleagues agree, with former Liberal MP Gary Blackwood, who believed jail wasn’t warranted. “He is genuinely sorry,” Blackwood said, adding, “he’s been through so much.”

Federal MP Darren Chester said “there are no winners” in Northe’s case. “I had no idea he was suffering mental ill health and had a range of addictions which allegedly contributed to his offending.”

Yes, prison plays an important role in our safety as a society. They are useful for detaining those we are afraid of and those who pose a threat to the public. But they are a place that should be reserved for hardened and violent criminals. For those who commit non-violent crimes, however brazen or maddening they may be, there are better punishments. Instead, we’re still choosing the option that costs taxpayers more than the criminal themselves will ever be required to repay and hoping it ends with reform.

Mia Schlicht is a criminal justice reform research analyst at the Institute of Public Affairs.

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