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4102.0 - Australian Social Trends, 2005  
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Contents >> Other areas of social concern >> Higher criminal court outcomes

Crime and Justice: Higher Criminal Court Outcomes

In 2002-03, males represented 87% of adjudicated defendants in the Higher Criminal Courts.

The criminal courts in Australia contribute to the effort to attain a safe and just society. The criminal courts form one part of the criminal justice system in Australia, which also includes the police and corrective services. The criminal justice system provides an avenue for individuals to defend themselves against criminal charges, protects the community from those who are proven guilty, and attempts to rehabilitate the convicted to avoid re-offending. The Report on Government Services estimated total criminal court administration expenditure in 2002-03 to be $414 million, or around $21 for each person in Australia (endnote 1).

There are several levels of adult criminal courts with offenders allocated according to the type and seriousness of the offence. The Higher Criminal Courts deal with the majority of cases involving serious offences, while the Magistrates' Criminal Courts deal with more routine and minor charges. In 2002-03 there were 14,500 adjudicated defendants in the Higher Criminal Courts, that is, defendants whose cases were finalised by a judgement or decision of the courts. In the same period, almost 425,000 adjudicated defendants were finalised in the Magistrates' Criminal Courts. This article will examine characteristics of adjudicated defendants in the Higher Criminal Courts, including their age and sex, principal offence, and their court and sentencing outcomes.

Adjudicated defendants in the Higher Criminal Courts (a) - 2002-03
Diagram: Adjudicated defendants in the Higher Criminal Courts (a) - 2002-03


Criminal courts in Australia

The data used in this article are drawn from Criminal Courts, Australia, 2002-03 (ABS cat. no. 4513.0). The data refer to adjudicated defendants in the Higher Criminal Courts of Australia (Supreme, District and County courts in each state and territory). These courts hear serious criminal offences including murder, manslaughter and drug importation, as well as serious sexual offences, robberies and assaults (endnote 2). Data relating to the Magistrates' Criminal Courts of Australia, which hear more minor charges such as road traffic offences, are experimental and are only included where specified. As a general rule, adult courts hear cases of defendants aged 17 or 18 years and older. Defendants can face more than one charge at the same time, with each offence able to have a different outcome as to the defendant’s guilt or innocence.

An adjudicated defendant is a person or organisation whose case is finalised and where at least one charge has a guilty plea, guilty verdict or acquittal outcome. In this article, the term ‘defendants’ refers to adjudicated defendants.

A non-adjudicated defendant is a person or organisation whose case is finalised by either being withdrawn by the prosecution or not proceeding for other reasons, such as the defendant being unfit to plead or having died. In 2002-03, there were under 2,200 non-adjudicated defendants in the Higher Criminal Courts.

The principal offence is the offence category associated with the main, or most serious, charge finalised against an adjudicated defendant. Where more than one offence is finalised against a defendant, the selection of principal offence gives precedence to offences for which the defendant was proven guilty. The National Offence Index (NOI) is a seriousness ranking of the Australian Standard Offence Classification and is used to determine a principal offence when a defendant has multiple charges. For further information see Criminal Courts, 2001-02 (ABS cat. no. 4513.0).


OFFENDERS AND THEIR CRIMES

Adjudicated defendants in the Higher Criminal Courts in Australia were predominantly male. In 2002-03, males represented 87% of adjudicated defendants. With a median age of 30 years, female defendants had a slightly higher median age than males (28 years). Almost a quarter (24%) of defendants in the Higher Criminal Courts were aged 20–24 years.

Defendants may face several charges in the criminal courts simultaneously. When these charges are finalised, the principal offence of the defendant is selected from the list of charges by taking into account the seriousness of each of the offences and he outcome of the court proceedings, i.e. whether the defendant is proven guilty (via a plea or verdict) or is acquitted.

Five principal offence categories accounted for almost three-quarters (72%) of defendants in the Higher Criminal Courts during 2002-03. These were acts intended to cause injury (21%), unlawful entry with intent (15%), illicit drug offences (13%), offences related to robbery and extortion (12%), and offences related to sexual assault (11%). For male defendants, the most common principal offence categories were acts intended to cause injury (21%) and unlawful entry with intent (16%). For females, acts intended to cause injury (19%) and offences related to deception (19%) were the most common.

Different principal offences were observed for older persons compared to younger persons. The most common principal offence for male defendants aged 45 years and over was an offence related to sexual assault. This category of offence accounted for around one-third (32%) of male defendants in this age group, compared to 6% of those aged less than 20 years. For younger male defendants aged less than 20 years, over one-quarter (27%) appeared in the Higher Criminal Courts with a principal offence of unlawful entry with intent, compared to 3% of male defendants aged 45 years and over.

For women, almost a quarter (24%) of the defendants aged less than 20 years were finalised in the Higher Criminal Courts with a principal offence of acts intended to cause injury. The most common principal offence of women aged 45 years and over was an offence related to deception (37%).

Age(a) and sex of adjudicated defendants(b) - 2002-03
Graph: Age(a) and sex of adjudicated defendants(b) - 2002-03

Selected principal offence of adjudicated defendants(a) - 2002-03
Graph: Selected principal offence of adjudicated defendants(a) - 2002-03



GOING TO TRIAL

In 2002-03, 83% of adjudicated defendants had entered a guilty plea while around 17% were subject to a trial outcome (guilty verdict or acquittal). A greater proportion of female defendants had entered a guilty plea than male defendants (88% and 83% respectively).

The proportion of adjudicated defendants who had entered a guilty plea varied by the type of principal offence. Of defendants with a principal offence related to homicide or sexual assault, a smaller than average proportion had entered a guilty plea (51% and 60% respectively). In comparison, 95% of defendants with a principal offence of unlawful entry with intent had entered a guilty plea, with the remaining 5% having a trial outcome.

Defendants with a principal offence related to sexual assault accounted for more than a quarter of all defendants finalised by trial in 2002-03. As defendants with these offences were overwhelmingly male, this contributed to a greater proportion of male defendants with a trial outcome (17%) than female defendants (12%).

In 2002-03, of defendants with a principal offence of acts intended to cause injury, 17% of men and 13% of women had a trial outcome. Similar proportions of men and women with a principal offence related to deception had a trial outcome (11% and 9% respectively).


PROVEN GUILTY OR ACQUITTED

Adjudicated defendants in the Higher Criminal Courts can be either acquitted of the charge against them, or proven guilty through a guilty verdict at trial or by entering a guilty plea. In 2002-03, 93% of defendants whose cases were heard in the Higher Criminal Courts were proven guilty, with 83% entering a guilty plea and 10% being proven guilty at trial.

With just 17% of defendants having their court outcome decided by trial in 2002-03, acquittals subsequently comprised a small proportion of all defendants who appeared in the Higher Criminal Courts (7%). For those defendants who did have a trial outcome, 41% received an acquittal. Men were more likely than women to successfully contest charges at trial - 42% of male defendants who went to trial were acquitted compared with 35% of female defendants.

Patterns around whether defendants choose to go to trial and the likelihood of being acquitted at trial varied by principal offence. In 2002-03, two out of every five (40%) defendants with a principal offence related to sexual assault had a trial outcome and of these about half (51%) were acquitted. As men accounted for almost all (98%) defendants with a principal offence related to sexual assault, this contributed to a greater proportion of male defendants being acquitted at trial than female defendants. The relatively high acquittal rate for sexual assault and related offences is in part due to the nature of the offences (endnote 3). It can often be difficult to prove that the offence occurred, and even with evidence of this, whether it was consensual (endnote 4).

In 2002-03, 97% of defendants with a principal offence of illicit drug offences were proven guilty, with 87% entering a guilty plea and 10% being given a guilty verdict at trial. Defendants with this principal offence were more likely to receive a guilty verdict at trial than defendants with most other principal offences at trial. Of defendants who were finalised with a principal offence of illicit drug offences, and who had a trial outcome, 83% of women and 79% of men received a guilty verdict.


Magistrates’ Criminal Courts

In the ABS data collection, the Magistrates’ Courts includes the Court of Petty Sessions and the Local Court, but excludes other courts of summary jurisdiction such as the Childrens’ Courts, Electronic Courts, and Drug Courts.

The Magistrates’ Courts of Australia deal with more minor charges which are decided by a magistrate, without a jury. In 2002-03, 38% of adjudicated defendants in the Magistrates’ Courts had a principal offence of road traffic and motor vehicle regulatory offences, while a further 10% had public order offences.

In 2002-03, 80% of defendants in the Magistrates’ Courts were male, a smaller proportion than for the same period in the Higher Criminal Courts. Defendants in the Magistrates’ Courts had a similar age profile to those in the Higher Criminal Courts with around half being aged less than 30 years.

The majority of defendants in the Magistrates’ Courts were proven guilty in 2002-03 (around 97% were convicted). However, owing to the less serious nature of the offences, a relatively small proportion of convicted offenders were sentenced to custody in a correctional institution or the community (6%). The most common sentencing outcome was a monetary order (71%).

ADJUDICATED DEFENDANTS IN THE MAGISTRATES' COURTS(a)(b) - 2002-03

Sex of defendant
unit
Male
Female

Adjudicated
no.
332,805
81,820
Proven guilty
%
97.2
97.6

(a) Data are considered to be ‘experimental’ due to data quality issues. State and territory differences in recording finalised defendants may have resulted in an over-count in New South Wales and the Northern Territory and an undercount in Tasmania.
(b) Excludes organisations, and persons with sex not recorded.

Source: Criminal Courts, Australia 2002-03 (ABS cat. no. 4513.0).

Proportion of convicted defendants(a) sentenced to custody in a correctional institution or the community - 2002-03
Graph: Proportion of convicted defendants(a) sentenced to custody in a correctional institution or the community - 2002-03



SENTENCING OUTCOMES

In determining the appropriate sentence for a convicted offender, the courts take into account aggravating and mitigating factors which may have influenced the offenders’ behaviour or the outcome of the incident (endnote 5). For example where violence is used, or the offender has a prior conviction, a heavier sentence may be imposed. On the other hand, the sentence may be more lenient, where an offender is provoked, is unlikely to re-offend, shows remorse or pleads guilty.

Sentences can be either custodial or non-custodial. Custodial orders require a person to have their liberty restricted for a specified period of time through either detainment or regular supervision, for example custody in a correctional institution or home detention. Suspended sentences may also be given, where at least part of the sentence does not have to be served, subject to the person being of good behaviour for a specified period. In 2002-03, over half (53%) of convicted offenders in the Higher Criminal Courts were sentenced to custody in a corrections facility, 3% to custody in the community, and a further 18% of convicted offenders were given fully suspended sentences. During the same year, the remaining quarter (26%) of convicted offenders received a non-custodial sentence such as a fine or community service order.

Different sentencing outcomes were also evident for young men and women. In 2002-03, convicted men and women aged less than 20 years were more likely to receive community supervision or work orders (41%) than offenders in older age-groups. Further, a smaller proportion of these young offenders were sentenced to imprisonment in a correctional institution than any other age group.

In 2002-03, a higher proportion of convicted men than convicted women were ordered into custody in a correctional facility or the community (58% and 38% respectively). A principal offence related to deception accounted for a greater proportion of convicted women than convicted men (20% compared with 6%), and this crime was less likely to result in a custodial sentence than crimes such as sexual assault and robbery. However, even when convicted of the same offence type, a greater proportion of men than women were sentenced to custody in a correctional institution or the community.

For example, 56% of men convicted of acts intended to cause injury were sentenced to custody in a correctional institution or the community compared with 30% of women. This difference could be associated with a range of aggravating and mitigating factors. For more information on women in custody, see Australian Social Trends 2004, Women in Prison.


Behind bars

Defendants who are proven guilty of a charge may be sentenced to serve time in a correctional institution. In 2002-03, 53% of people convicted of crimes in the Higher Criminal Court were sentenced to custody in a correctional institution.

At the end of June 2003, there were 23,555 prisoners in Australia and of these, 93% were men. Four out of every five prisoners was aged between 20-44 years, with male and female prisoners having a similar age profile. Around 58% of male prisoners and 49% of female prisoners were known to have been imprisoned previously.

PRIOR IMPRISONMENT OF PRISONERS - 2003

Male
Female

Prior imprisonment
%
%

Yes
57.8
48.9
No
40.9
47.4
Total(a)
100.0
100.0

no.
no.

Total(a)
21,961
1,594

(a) Includes prisoners whose prior imprisonment status is unknown.

Source: Prisoners in Australia, 2003 (ABS cat. no. 4517.0)


ENDNOTES

1 Steering Committee for the Review of Government Service Provision, Productivity Commission, Report on Government Services, 2004: Volume 1 , <http://www.pc.gov.au/gsp/ reports/rogs/2004/2004v1.zip> accessed 12 August 2004.

2 Australian Bureau of Statistics 2004, Yearbook Australia 2005, cat. no. 1301.0, ABS, Canberra.

3 Australian Bureau of Statistics 2004, Sexual assault in Australia: a statistical overview, cat. no. 4523.0, ABS, Canberra.

4 Cook, B, David, F, and Grant, A.2001, Sexual violence in Australia, Australian Institute of Criminology, Research and Public Policy Series No. 36, AIC, Canberra.

5 New South Wales Consolidated Acts, Crimes (Sentencing procedure) Act 1999 Section 21A , <http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/legis/nsw/ consol_act/cpa1999278/s21a.html> accessed 23 September 2004.


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