The Herald Sun has reported on the Victims of Crime Commissioner’s plan to raise funds to support victims of crime. He proposes imposing a levy on criminals.
According to the report, the Premier of Victoria described this as a very important reform and said that the Government will work with the Commissioner to deliver the policy and to work out a number of details.
The Leader of the Opposition indicated that he is strongly in favour of the levy, and in fact proposed a rate that is much higher than the rate proposed by the Commissioner. The Commissioner recommended a levy of $20.00 for infringement notices (including speeding fines) and $50.00 for people who have to go to Court. The Opposition’s proposal is that there would be no levy on infringement notices, but people who go to Court would pay an extra $100.00 for charges heard in the Magistrates Court and $350.00 for charges heard in the County Court.
The Commissioner said he believes the levy will be supported by the public because only people who break the law will have to pay, adding “I don’t think too many level-headed people would be violently opposed.”
I am, of course, in favour of support being provided to victims of crime. The current system provides limited support and I would love to see a substantial increase in the funds available to provide practical support to victims. However, I do not believe that a levy on criminal offenders is a sensible policy. Does this mean I’m not a level-headed person? Let’s find out.
I understand that “making the criminals pay” will always sound good. However, I do not believe there is any benefit in taking a “one size fits all” approach to crime. The Magistrates Court can deal with a huge range of offences, from using indecent language in a public place (or my personal favourite, “flying a kite in a public place to the annoyance of any person”, which is still in the Summary Offences Act) to far more serious offences like recklessly causing serious injury, or aggravated burglary with intent to steal less than $100,000. It makes no sense to impose the same levy on the person who broke into my house while I was home and stole $99,999 worth of stuff and the person who annoyed me by flying a kite in a park. In other words, the punishment needs to fit the crime.
Then we have the proposal to include a levy on infringement notices. This would make the policy much less popular, as I do not know anyone who has never been fined for speeding. Most people who get caught driving at 63 in a 60 zone will not appreciate being lumped into the same category of “Law-breaker” with people who recklessly cause serious injuries.
I don’t mind if $20.00 gets added to my next speeding fine, particularly if I know that that money will go to helping victims of crime, but a person on minimum wage is already going to struggle to pay a speeding fine on top of their rent or mortgage, groceries, bills, school fees and shoes for the children. In other words, flat taxes are unfair.
The other problem is efficiency. After 20 years of representing people in the Courts, I can tell you that most of the people who come to Court do not have a spare $50 or $100 to pay. A lot of people who are fined for minor offences end up doing unpaid community work because they can’t afford the fine. If the government needs to enforce payment of this levy, there will be plenty of cases where the enforcement costs are more than the levy. This doesn’t help victims of crime in any way, it just imposes an added burden on people who are already in very difficult circumstances. It would make much more sense to put the money we would spend on enforcement straight into a fund to help victims. We could also think about spending some of it on rehabilitation for offenders.
We already have a system where offenders who cause harm to their victims can be ordered to pay compensation. If it is not working well, largely because those offenders often have limited resources, then of course we should have a system to compensate victims of crime, and of course we should fund it properly. The efficient way to do this is through a tiny tax increase that most of us would not notice instead of a cumbersome, difficult to enforce and poorly targeted levy.
We need to get serious about helping victims of crime. The answer is that we should have a small levy, only applied to people with a reasonably high taxable income who can afford it. This is much harder to sell than a “tax on criminals”, but since it’s clearly a better idea, I would love to see a politician with the courage to run with it.