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Threat Offences in Victoria: Sentencing Outcomes and Reoffending

On June 28, 2021,the Sentencing Advisory Council released its report, Threat Offences in Victoria: Sentencing Outcomes and Reoffending.  In this report, the Advisory Council examines sentencing outcomes from 2015 to 2019 for five types of threat offences (threats to kill, threats to inflict serious injury, threats to destroy or damage property, threats to commit a sexual offence and threats to assault an emergency workers). It considers the offences co-sentenced alongside threat offences and the prior and subsequent offending rates for people sentenced for threat offending.

The report indicates that “[t]hreat offences – most notably threats to kill or seriously injure another person – are common and serious. They often occur in breach of court orders, and are frequently linked to family violence and a variety of other offences. To date, however, they have received little attention as a discrete form of offending…This report presents the first empirical analysis of threat offences recorded and sentenced in Victoria, along with an analysis of the offending trajectories of sentenced threat offenders” (at page ix).

The report also notes that “[p]revious research by the Council has found that threat to kill and threat to inflict serious injury are the two most common serious offences committed by people serving a community correction order. They are common prior and subsequent offences among offenders who breach family violence orders, and among children who reoffend following sentence. Threats are also well-recognised risk factors for future family violence” (at paragraph 1.2).

The Nature of the Harm Caused:

The report indicates that the “harms caused by threat offences may be expressed as belonging to three distinct types” (at paragraph 2.13):

• the fear that the victim experiences as a result of the threat;

• the effect of the threat on the victim’s perceived or actual ability to make free choices (in many cases, causing this effect may be the real motivation for making the threat); and

• the risk that the threat will eventually be carried out.

The report also indicates that “[t]hreateners have been classified into five main groups: shockers, schemers, signallers, screamers and shielders. ‘Screamers’ use threats to express emotion rather than intent to harm, and ‘shielders’ aim to deter aggression from others by reasserting their own dangerousness. Both could be expected to be less likely to have their threats interpreted as serious and thus face criminal sanction, though that will not always be the case” (at paragraph 2.15).

The “remaining three groups’ intended effects map more closely to the harms identified among victims” (at paragraph 2.16):

• ‘shockers’ threaten in order to frighten and produce an immediate impact on the victim, create immediate anxiety or, occasionally, attract attention;

• ‘schemers’ threaten in order to coerce others into compliance, often in a premeditated and explicitly conditional way; and

• ‘signallers’ threaten in order to indicate intended future violence.

The report notes that “violence (including threats) that occurs within close personal relationships and lasts for a longer time tends to be more harmful” (at paragraphs 2.19 and 2.20):

The direct fear that the victim of a threat experiences is the most obvious and immediate harm resulting from that threat. Threats can cause substantial immediate fear and anxiety and can contribute to longer-term psychological harm, including diagnosable psychiatric conditions such as clinical anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. The impact of a threat against any particular victim cannot necessarily be foreseen. Threats are situationally dependent, and people vary considerably in their resilience to threats. However, some factors can be isolated as being particularly important.

Research suggests that repeated threats are associated with higher levels of long-term harm to physical and mental functioning. Threats often occur in the context of family violence, stalking or both, which suggests an association with a longer-term course of conduct and thus greater harm to victims. More generally, violence (including threats) that occurs within close personal relationships and lasts for a longer time tends to be more harmful. Research on stalking also bears this out: higher rates of threats and fear are associated with stalking by current or former partners than with stalking by others.

Threats and Murder:

The report points out, that “the possibility of that threat being carried out, become stronger when the relationship between threatener and victim is closer. This phenomenon is known as the intimacy effect” (at paragraph 2.30):

Threats are a strong predictor of further violence and homicide where the victim is the partner or family member of the threatener. A number of studies have found that, among victims killed by a partner or stalker, many were known to have received a threat to kill before the homicide occurred. One study found that 90% of victims of attempted murder had been threatened by the offender before the attempted murder. A 2007 study found that among Victorians convicted for threat to kill in 1993–1994, more than half (54%) received further convictions within 10 years: 44% were convicted for violent offences and 14% for offences committed against the victim of the original threat.

The Number and Circumstances of Threat Offences:

The report states in “the five years to 31 December 2019 (the reference period), 18,775 threat charges were sentenced in 13,846 cases in Victoria”. The circumstances of these were summarized as follows (at page 1x):

In 37% of cases, the threat offence was the principal (most serious) offence in the case, while in the other 63% the threat was co-sentenced with a more serious offence. Like recorded threat offences, most sentenced threat offences were threats to kill (54%) and most were linked to family violence (58%). The vast majority of threat charges were sentenced in the Magistrates’ Court (87%), while 10% were sentenced in the Children’s Court and 3% were sentenced in the higher courts.

Most sentenced threat offenders (88%) were males. Their threat offending tended to be more serious: they more commonly were sentenced for threat to kill, more commonly made their threats in a family violence context, and more often were sentenced in the higher courts.

Sentencing Outcomes:

The report indicates in “the Magistrates’ Court, the most frequently imposed sentencing outcome was imprisonment (35% of charges), followed by a community correction order (31%)…custodial sentences were especially associated with family violence and gender (with men and family violence offenders receiving more prison sentences). This is probably linked to the prevalence of aggravating features in family violence cases involving threats against intimate partners. In the higher courts, three-quarters (75%) of threat charges received prison sentences. In contrast, custodial sentences were rare in the Children’s Court, with just 7% of threat offences receiving a youth justice centre order or youth residential centre order” (at page x).

Implications of Findings:

Under this heading, the report suggests that the “data in this report confirms the seriousness of threat offending – it is linked to serious harms for victims and frequently occurs in a family violence context. The extraordinarily high reoffending rates associated with threat offending suggest it is perhaps even more of a risk factor for ongoing or escalating offending than previously understood. Many stakeholders consulted by the Council suggested that threat offending, especially where it occurs outside a family violence context, is linked to poverty, homelessness, addiction, neurodisability and other forms of criminogenic need” (at page xi).