Queensland Law Society

Opinion editorial by Queensland Law Society president Bill Potts

Published in The Courier Mail, 13 January 2016

Coward punch: It’s time to put an end to alcohol-fuelled violence

This last week the community was appalled, quite rightly, by the senseless killing of 18-year-old Queenslander Cole Miller. 

It’s undoubtedly difficult to put the heartbreak of the situation into words: a young man has lost his life.   

Two others, also in burgeoning adulthood, have lost their freedom.  The parents of all are suffering.

Queenslanders have seen a disturbing number of one punch deaths in recent years.

The specifics vary but all follow a dismal pattern: a nightclub district, a young drunk man, a seemingly random attack, a fatal head injury. 

We do not yet know the full circumstances surrounding Cole Miller’s death but it will certainly be a test case for “coward punch” laws introduced by the former government in 2014.

Much has been made of the fact that the alleged killers are the first to be charged under the new offence of “unlawful striking causing death”.  If found guilty under this law they must serve at least 80% of the sentence time in prison or 15 years (whichever is the lesser).  The maximum penalty is life in jail.

Although the stiff penalties may satisfy the community’s desire to see justice for terrible acts, but on their own, will achieve little to solve the source of street violence.  

Research and long experience tell us time and time again that mandatory sentencing does not necessarily curb crime, but can produce a host of other undesirable and hurtful outcomes.

The perpetrators of a 'coward punch' are typically (though not always) young, drunk and impulsive males. 

He is not a homo economicus, rationally weighing the long-term potential consequences of his actions.

He is not even weighing the immediate consequences.

The ‘coward punch’ is the rash act of a person whose judgement is impaired by intoxication.  

Under no circumstances does this minimise the moral gravity of not only physically attacking an innocent person and extinguishing or catastrophically altering a life. However, we must be realistic about what strategies will actually prevent future deaths and catastrophic injury. Ensuring that the punch is never thrown is a better remedy than punishing the perpetrator after the tragedy has occurred.

Being realistic means that we have to start by addressing the elephant in the room: the alcohol.

Many Australians consider drinking to be part of our national identity, making it all the more ironic that, as a nation, we can't seem to handle our booze. 

The numbers are disturbing: alcohol appears to be implicated in 70% of physical assaults in Australia and 73% of intimate partner physical assaults.[1] 

In 2013 alone, about 1.7 million Australians were physically abused by someone under the influence of alcohol. 

That number increased to 5 million when verbal abuse and fear of abuse were counted in the matrix.[2]

These numbers may suggest that there is an epidemic of alcohol-fueled violence, but as any experienced police officer or judge will tell you, the truth is even worse: the numbers have been this bad for years.  

How do we tackle what appears to be a problem within our culture? 

The old, predictable response of banging on about punishment and being “tough on crime” – simply does not work. 

What is needed is a well thought-out response with a range of interventions based on evidence involving government, police, doctors, lawyers, the hospitality industry and the community generally.

One of the options currently on the table is alcohol lockout and last drinks laws. 

These have been trialed successfully in other Australian states, and are emerging as one of the most promising harm reduction tools available to governments. 

Twelve months after similar laws were introduced in Sydney’s notorious King’s Cross district, doctors from the nearby St Vincent’s hospital reported a 25% decrease in the most serious alcohol-related injuries.

These figures are very encouraging, although of course they are not, on their own, a panacea.

A comprehensive approach involves trying to change our community's relationship to alcohol.  

A recent publication by the National Drug Law Enforcement Research Fund (NDLERF), "Interventions for reducing alcohol supply, alcohol demand and alcohol-related harm", describes dozens of possible strategies for tackling the problem, many backed with strong evidence from other jurisdictions.   

Strategies include:

The restriction of promotional discounts of alcohol, tighter regulation of alcohol advertising, warning labels, public registers of dangerous venues, allowing police to use underage people to test whether venues or stores will sell to them and taxing alcohol by volume, to change the perverse current situation where it’s cheaper to buy two bottles of straight rum than a slab of rum and cola.

Many of these ideas are controversial, but any of them on their own or in combination will be more effective in preventing assaults and filling our prisons with perpetrators on mandatory sentences. 

If we are serious about curbing the damage alcohol does to the community and to individuals, all such ideas should be up for debate.

Only prevention, not punishment, will end the carnage.