An investigation of regional differences in the judicial use and perception of probation as a sentencing option in Tasmania

Criminology Research Council grant ; (18/81)

There exist in Tasmania regional differences in the use of the probation orders by magistrates. These differences consist of regional variations in the frequency with which the orders are imposed and variations in the length of the orders when they are imposed. This study has shown that demographic change has to a certain extent an impact on this difference in that there have been some age cohort changes which have altered the size of the 'at risk' group. However, it does not explain it all. Rather it is a central hypothesis of this report that magistrates' perception of the nature and usefulness of probation can account in a meaningful way for the variation in its use. A literature search and focussed interviews with magistrates indicated that magistrates are informed by the two different though often combined sentencing principles of rehabilitation and punishment. The data support the hypothesis that an emphasis on either one of these principles will substantially affect how probation is used as a sentencing option.

An emphasis on rehabilitation will result in the more frequent use of supervised probation orders and will result in their being combined with other penalties such as fines and imprisonment. Their focus will be a predominantly young group of offenders, and will be added after a sentencing decision has been made. An emphasis on an offender's social circumstances and his consequent rehabilitation through the medium of a pre-sentence report has the effect of increasing the likelihood that the revision order will be for more than 12 months duration.

Alternatively where probation is viewed as functioning as a penalty as well as a rehabilitative tool and where the decision to impose a probation order forms part of the sentencing decision, then it is less likely to be used in conjunction with other penalties, and is more likely to be imposed for a period of 12 months or less.

The consequences of such sentencing principles is that where the number of offenders made subject to supervised probation orders is constant across the State, the actual number of offenders subject to supervision in any particular region would vary. Probation officers in the southern region would have case loads which were on average smaller than their northern and north- western colleagues. However they would effectively 'turn over' the same number of cases, within a given period, and would consequently experience different demands on their time and expertise.

Finally, the project has demonstrated that sentencing patterns can be studied so as to isolate the various contributing factors which result in apparent sentencing disparity. It was possible to examine demographic changes and assess the extent to which they contribute to the incidence of probation order imposition and in conjunction with focussed interviews and empirical data it was possible to account for the variations in the probationer population in Tasmania.