Cowan, non-parole periods and the media

Like most Queenslanders, nay Australians, I have followed with, principally, horror the trial of Daniel Morcombe’s killer. Cowan (I will not do the man any honour by stating his whole name) was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment (on the murder charge) with a non-parole period set of 20 years.

Justice Atkinson, in her sentencing remarks, has been overt about her views and recommendations as to whether Cowan ought ever be considered for parole: in short she would never recommend that he be so considered.  That is, plainly, the right view to take.

The non-parole period set by Justice Atkinson, as she is required to do by Queensland law, has provoked much debate coupled with the threat of an Attorney-Generals appeal.  The debate would appear to have been provoked by the manner in which the sentence of Cowan has been reported.  The media focus, both in print and spoken media, has been on the “shortness” off Cowan’s parole period.  In just about every report I have heard / read the statement “Cowan was sentenced to life imprisonment with parole set at 20 years”.  That is just plainly wrong.  Actually, worse, it is deceptive.

Justice Atkinson’s setting of a non-parole does merely this: it sets the period that Cowan must serve before he can make an application for parole to the parole board.  IT DOES NOT MEAN THAT HE WILL BE OUT OF JAIL IN 20 YEARS.  It means he may seek to be.  Parole boards in Queensland, and more broadly in Australia, are tasked with determining whether a prisoner is suitable for parole.  So all of this hyperbole about Cowan getting out in 20 years is nothing short of hot air.  He is NOT entitled to get out of jail in 20 years; he is merely entitled to apply to be considered for parole.

Parole boards in Queensland, and again in Australia, have a long history of not letting the committers of heinous crimes out of jail when their non-parole periods have expired.  The case of Tony Rawlins is instructive here.  On April 18, 2010 Rawlin passed away at Wolston Park Correction Centre aged 82 having served 54 years in jail for murder of a 12 year old girl.  A medical expert at the time of his trial commented that “he was entirely unconcerned with his deeds.”  His numerous applications for parole were rejected by the Queensland parole board.

Another instructive example is that Douglas Crabbe who in 1983 in the Northern Territory drove his truck into a pub and killed 5 people.  He was sentenced to life in prison with a non parole period of 30 years.  His first parole application last year was rejected and he will not be able to apply for parole for another 3 years.

The Morcombe case is horrifying and I personally believe that Cowan should be locked away and the key thrown away.  He should never see the outside of a jail again.  The fact is that he will not leave jail again.  The sentence of life imprisonment with a non parole period of 20 years means that he will not leave jail again because it is incomprehensible that a parole board would release him.

The media needs to report the facts surrounding the imposition of a non-parole period rather than seeking to incite or misinform the public which is what it is blatantly doing.

I am going to repeat this again: I am not at all suggesting that the sentence of Cowan is two low or that he ought be out of jail in 20 years.  He should never see the light of day outside of jail again.  That is precisely what this sentence means: if only the press would report it that way.

Postscript: Is it any surprise that one of the two applications for a mistrial put to Justice Atkinson arose because of irresponsible reporting by the Courier Mail? The incitement of the public seems to have blinded, as it often does with the Courier Mail, what is actually fair and proper to report and the administration of justice.  I probably should not be surprised then they refuse to report the facts about what a non-parole period means.