Themes in sentencing young adults charged with serious violent crime involving alcohol and other drugs

Publication Date01 September 2020
AuthorSiobhan M Lawler,David A Bright,Maree Teesson,Emma L Barrett,Lexine A Stapinski
Date01 September 2020
Themes in sentencing young
adults charged with serious
violent crime involving
alcohol and other drugs
Siobhan M Lawler , Emma L Barrett and
Lexine A Stapinski
University of Sydney, Australia
David A Bright
Flinders University, Australia
Maree Teesson
University of Sydney, Australia
The majority of young people in custody have alcohol and other drug problems and over 90%
report past-year experiences of high-risk drinking and illicit drug use. Despite a strong link
between drug use and violent offending, there is a dearth of information about how this
relationship plays out in sentencing young adult offenders. This study examines themes in the
sentencing of drug-using young adults facing court for serious violent crime and describes
how judges discuss rehabilitation as a consideration for this high-risk group. This research
contributes to the literature by bridging law and social science through a cross sectional
analysis of n ¼507 sentenci ng remarks from New South Wales higher courts. Substance use
involvement was indicated in more than three-quarters (77%) of violent offence cases.
Among young adults sentenced for violent crimes involving substance use (n ¼51) robbery
and homicide were the most common offences, and alcohol and methamphetamine were the
most frequently involved s ubstances. Two themes emerged around judges’ reasons for sen-
tencing, one emphasising offender agency and choice and another more compassionate
position acknowledging the influence of drug dependence on offending behaviour. Despite
this divide, addressing substance use dependence was commonly seen as key for the
Corresponding author:
Siobhan M Lawler, Matilda Centre for Research in Mental Health and Substance Use, Sydney Medical School,
University of Sydney, Sydney, NSW 2000, Australia.
Australian & New Zealand Journal of
2020, Vol. 53(3) 411–432
!The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0004865820907149
successful rehabilitation of young people who commit violent crime involving alcohol and
other drugs.
Alcohol and drug, imprisonment, intoxication, rehabilitation, sentencing, violence, violent
offending, young adult
Date received: 24 May 2019; accepted: 20 January 2020
Young adult offenders (age 18–25) tend to have multiple and composite needs charac-
terised by a number of static and dynamic risk factors that span environment, social,
familial and individual antecedents (Fougere, Thomas, & Daffern, 2013). This transi-
tional period is a distinct developmental stage from both adolescence and adulthood
(Bonnie, Stroud, & Breiner, 2014); however, research indicates young adults aged 18–21
are more like teenagers than older adults in their tendency to engage in high risk,
impulsive behaviour (Cohen et al., 2016). The difference has been attributed in part
to the development of the prefrontal cortex which is the brain region implicated in
higher order functions such as decision making, foresight, emotion regulation and
goal-directed action (Tanner & Arnett, 2011). Individuals who enter the justice
system at a young age commonly present with significant histories of maltreatment,
abuse and neglect, psychopathology and drug and alcohol misuse (Torok, Darke,
Kaye, & Shand, 2015). Efforts to intervene early, divert, rehabilitate and reintegrate
justice-involved young people are impeded by various challenges associated with a lack
of coordination across siloed health, criminal justice and welfare services and systems
(Dowse, Cumming, Strnadova
´, Lee, & Trofimovs, 2014). Involvement in the criminal
justice system can compound disadvantage related to housing, employment and mental
health issues. Certain groups of young people are significantly over represented in
custodial settings, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (Australian
Bureau of Statistics, 2018), people with a cognitive disability (Haysom, Indig, Moore, &
Gaskin, 2014) and people with mental health and substance use disorders (SUDs)
(Baldry, Dowse, & Clarence, 2012). Despite the link between drug and alcohol
use and antisocial behaviour, there has been little research examining how sentencers
perceive and manage the multiplex needs of young adult offenders with drug and
alcohol problems.
Judges’ aims in sentencing
Sentencing is an inherently complex practice. Judges must undertake a careful exercise
of synthesis, considerate of the evidence and the purpose of sentencing, guided by
reason, experience and intuition (Potas, 1991). According to s. 3A of the Crimes
(Sentencing Procedure) Act 1999 (NSW), a sentence can be imposed for the purposes
of retribution, deterrence, community protection, reparation and rehabilitation.
412 Australian & New Zealand Journal of Criminology 53(3)

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