Perhaps the most astounding aspect of the sentencing of the former Warriors rugby league player Russell Packer was his barrister's claim that he had no idea imprisonment would even be contemplated. This was akin to Murugan Thangaraj saying he was blind and deaf to what had been happening in Sydney in the past few months. During that period, the city has witnessed numerous examples of severe and often unprovoked street violence. As Magistrate Greg Grogan noted in jailing Packer for the maximum allowable two-year term for assault, Sydneysiders were sick and tired of this type of behaviour.
Before the wave of violence, Packer may, indeed, have expected a relatively lenient sentence. But that, quite rightly, was never going to be his lot at this time.
Mr Thangaraj sought to distance Packer's assault from Sydney's new culture of "king hits" - a cowardly blow to the head that the victim cannot see coming - which has added a heightened viciousness to the more customary brands of alcohol-fuelled violence. One of the victims has been Alex McEwen, a 19-year-old New Zealander who suffered head and spinal damage after being attacked outside a McDonald's restaurant in Penrith.
Packer's act of bashing a man and then stomping on his face, breaking two bones in the process, was sufficiently serious to include him in a crackdown by the courts. Before his sentencing, they had already taken a similarly tougher line in dealing with others charged with assault. This, in itself, should have alerted Packer and his legal team to his likely fate.
Making examples of people such as him will not, of course, remedy the deeply entrenched strand of alcohol abuse that triggers such violence. This has come increasingly under the spotlight during a decade in which crime rates in Australia declined in almost every category except assaults. Thus, much discussion is taking place there, as in this country, about the increased consumption and availability of liquor, the influence of peers, and the normalisation of violence thanks to its strong presence in movies, television and video games.
There is also much criticism of the fact that in the past, the most common punishment for perpetrators of serious assaults causing injury was a good behaviour bond. In the year to June 2013, only 15 per cent of violent offenders were imprisoned. The behaviour bonds, however, have done little to discourage criminal activity, perhaps largely because they are unsupervised.
Clearly, a more effective and more immediate deterrent is required. Throwing every perpetrator of assault into prison is never going to be the answer.
But in a punch-drunk city, creating examples such as Russell Packer can deter others. Sydneysiders saw graphic evidence of this after a man was imprisoned for 55 years for gang rape in 2002. The sentence was later reduced to 31 years but even so there has not been another gang rape reported in the city since.
Tougher sentencing is, however, only a small part of the solution to the current scourge. A greater police presence in known troublespots, such as Kings Cross, is another obvious short-term response. But so, too, are longer-term and more involved policies that educate and identify and address the problems of the likely perpetrators of assaults at an earlier stage. More effective means of aiding rehabilitation are a further requirement.
Packer has appealed against his sentence. If it stands, he will, indeed, pay a far heavier price than might have been anticipated even six months ago. Nonetheless, as the magistrate noted, his was a "cowardly and deplorable" assault, and the victim was lucky to escape so lightly. There can be little sympathy for anyone responsible for such senseless violence.
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