Prison sentences won’t protect paramedics

Commercial media worked themselves into a frenzy after Victorian County Court judge Barbara Cotterell overturned the prison sentences of Amanda Warren, 33, and Carris Underwood, 20, on 15 May.

In 2016, Warren and Underwood attacked paramedics Paul Judd and Chenaye Bentley in the Melbourne suburb of Reservoir, severely injuring Judd.

Judge Cotterell noted that Warren and Underwood had served time in jail, had suffered “appalling” childhoods, were mentally unfit at the time and had been struggling with substance abuse problems.

While there is no excuse for assaulting paramedics, it is perhaps worth asking why assaults on health care workers are on the increase despite the introduction of mandatory sentencing laws in 2014.

It is naive at best, and deliberately misleading at worst, to suggest that tougher sentencing and more prisons will do anything to protect health care workers. Prison is the worst possible way to deal with this problem.

A comprehensive study carried out by the Sentencing Advisory Council in 2012 found that people sentenced to prison were more likely to be socially isolated upon their release, to be unemployed and more likely to return to prison than those who were not imprisoned for similar crimes.

The question nobody bothered to ask is: why are attacks on health care workers increasing?

This question leads to an obvious answer: social services that should be provided by governments have been steadily disintegrating.

It’s no secret that the mental health system in Victoria is severely underfunded.

Why should paramedics be expected routinely to deal with mentally ill, drug-affected patients in the community who should be in the care of an appropriate mental health facility – as was the case when Judd was attacked?

There are simply not enough services to deal with the huge demand for mental health care, drug rehabilitation, crisis accommodation and homelessness.

People needing these services are left to rot. Increasingly, paramedics and emergency room staff have to deal with the messy and brutal consequences.

The lack of services is compounded by the skyrocketing cost of housing. Simultaneously, Victoria’s share of public housing stock has dropped from 7 percent in 1991 to just 4 percent. Homelessness in Victoria is up 14 percent in the past year.

Add to this that, in Melbourne’s northern suburbs, the youth unemployment rate stands at almost 16 percent.

This picture helps to explain why these attacks will become more frequent.

All the calls for tougher sentencing are made with no intention of fixing the root cause of these problems. The most prominent voices – Liberal politicians and the editors of and commentators in the daily papers – have no interest in addressing the social conditions that create the violent, anti-social people who attack paramedics. 

In fact, it is usually these very same people and media outlets that celebrate privatisation, cuts to welfare and attacks on working class living conditions. More prisons and harsher sentencing will only make things worse and divert more money away from much needed social spending.

Because Victoria’s laws are harsher than they have been for generations, the incarceration rate is booming – having risen threefold in 40 years, from 38 people per 100,000 to 117 per 100,000.

To keep up, the Andrews government has built a $670 million, 1,300-bed prison at Ravenhall and is building a $700 million, 700-bed prison near Geelong. Another 470 beds will be added to existing prisons at a cost of nearly $350 million.

And now it has announced that assaults on paramedics will be treated the same as murder, a category-one offence. This is from a supposedly “progressive” Labor government.

We must resist the drive towards mass incarceration in Victoria and lay the blame for social decay squarely at the feet of governments that have systematically underfunded vital public services.

The prison system ruins lives. Left wing people need to be saying this, even if it is unpopular.