Between the 4 and 14 January 2017, Mark Ganon lit a number of grass fires in the North West metropolitan area of Melbourne by attaching weights to sparklers that were lit and then throwing them into grass from his vehicle. The fires burned out 431,274 square metres of grassland. Some of these fires burned ‘close to residential properties, posing a risk to the public and major freeways causing traffic delays. Self-evidently, this type of criminal behaviour poses a great risk to the safety of people who may be nearby and those tasked with fighting the fire, as well as a great risk of damage to property. Fortunately, the damage from [Mr Ganon’s] conduct was confined and no one was injured’ (DPP v Ganon  VCC 1314,  (Lacava J)).
Police detected Mr Ganon driving a vehicle, similar to one identified on CCTV, with stolen number plates. He was stopped, and after a struggle with police, arrested. He was found to be unlicensed, driving an unregistered vehicle and in possession of a small amount of methylamphetamine. He was charged on 17 January 2017 and was held in custody until hs sentencing on 14 September 2017, a total of 226 days.
Mr Ganon entered a plea of guilty to all offences – six charges of intentionally causing a bushfire and one charge each of possession of a drug of dependence; handling stolen goods; committing an indictable offence whilst on bail; resisting an emergency worker on duty; unlicensed driving and driving an unregistered vehicle. Whilst Mr Ganon had 9 previous convictions, none were for arson or related offences. This was his first time in prison. Whilst on remand the judge noted (at ) Mr Ganon ‘have behaved well, remained drug-free and [had] a job.’
In sentencing Mr Gannon, Lacava J said (at , -):
You endangered the safety of people and property on a fairly large scale. The offending extended over a period of almost two weeks and it involved repeated acts of lighting fires. Any sentence must properly impose a measure of protection of the community from you and reflect deterrence, both general and specific, and must appropriately denounce your offending and impose just punishment and take into account your prospects for rehabilitation, which I assess as being only fair. One cannot be more certain, because you must rid yourself of drug dependency and have appropriate treatment for your mental health problems…
By your guilty pleas, you have saved the time and cost of a trial. I also treat your pleas of guilty as indicative of genuine remorse on your part for your actions.
Because you pleaded guilty at the earliest opportunity, you are entitled to a reduction in sentence …
Counsel for the defendant pointed to support that Mr Ganon had from his family and that he had ‘already made significant progress towards [his] own rehabilitation’ (). He suggested ‘a term of imprisonment of not more than 12 months and have you assessed for a community corrections order’ ().
The judge did not agree that this would be an appropriate sentence, he said (at ):
In my opinion, your offending is too serious and having regard to the purposes of sentencing which must be taken into account when sentencing you for this offending, I am of the opinion that a term of imprisonment of 12 months and a community corrections order would not properly serve the purposes of sentencing in this case. For these reasons I will impose a term of imprisonment and fix a non-parole period.
Mr Ganon’s sentences ranged from a $200 fine for driving an unregistered vehicle to three years for one of the arson charges. Some sentences were to served consecutively (ie one after the other) others, or at least part them, concurrently (ie at the same time). The effect was a total sentence of 5 years imprisonment with a non-parole period of 3 years and 4 months. The sentence and the non-parole period were all back dated to the date that Mr Ganon was first arrested. Had Mr Ganon entered a plea of ‘not guilty’ and been found guilty after trial, the appropriate sentence would have been ‘seven and a half years and I would have fixed a non-parole period of five years’ ().
I make no comment on whether this, or is not, an appropriate sentence. Sentencing is a complex process taking into account a multitude of factors both personal to the offender and the objective risk to others. Judges have experience in dealing with people and placing the offending before them on a scale. For people with no experience of the criminal justice system every offence is as bad as it gets if that’s the only one they’ve seen. Judges, with extensive experience in law before their appointment to the Bench, realise that the range of human behaviour is extreme and its causes complex. Whether readers of this blog think 5 years is lenient, harsh, or just right, I shall leave to them to decide. Hopefully this summary (or reading the full judgement) at least shows the factors that are taking into account and some insight into the judge’s reasoning.
I do say that it is appropriate to give a discount for a guilty plea as it does allow and encourage offenders to take responsibility for their action and it saves the state and victims (where there are victims) the time and trauma of a trial. If there were no discount it would always be worth going to trial and seeing if the Crown case, for some reason, fails to prove the case to the required standard. (The discount for a guilty plea does, however, also put pressure on people who are not guilty to enter a plea rather than take their chances at trial).
It is also important to set a non-parole period. Without a non-parole period an offender would be released at the end of his or her sentence with not assistance to fit back into society. With parole, there is an incentive to take steps to behave whilst in prison and to deal with whatever issues are in the offender’s background. The offender can be rewarded with parole for good behaviour, and when released their release can be subject to terms and the supervision of the parole service both to monitor their behaviour and to assist them with the transition back into society.