The Tasmanian government has missed its own deadline in releasing a report from the Sentencing Advisory Council on sentencing for non-fatal strangulation.
The instigation of the report came in the wake of a harrowing coroner's recommendation regarding the importance of considering non-fatal strangulation in a domestic setting as a particularly serious offence.
The council intended to provide the report in March 2021, allowing almost 20 months from the release of the recommendations.
Fighting Back against family violence
This offence has been increasingly thrown into the spotlight in recent years with data emerging that women who survive strangulation by a person known to them are as high as eight times more likely to later be the victim of a homicide committed by the same offender.
The Examiner revealed in December, on the back of an estimates question from Murchison MLC Ruth Forrest, that the Sentencing Advisory Council was not tasked with recommending a standalone offence for non-fatal strangulation.
Leader for the government Leonie Hiscutt said while a standalone offence was not a certainty from the council's investigation the "department" was "conducting this analysis".
Rather, the council was asked to investigate "how we could strengthen our laws" according to Tasmanian Attorney-General Elise Archer.
In August last year Ms Archer said about the report, "I have expressed a desire that it is a matter of priority".
I have expressed a desire that it is a matter of priority.- Attorney-General Elise Archer
The Examiner understands a draft of the report was circulated as early as February 19. When asked whether the report had been finished or released internally a spokesperson for the Tasmanian government said, "the Tasmanian Liberal Government is yet to receive the report from the Sentencing Advisory Council".
The terms of reference for the report include analysing cases in Tasmania where non-fatal strangulation, choking or suffocation has been "considered as a sentencing factor" and what the sentencing outcomes were in those cases.
As a mark of the seriousness of strangulation charges, the Tasmanian Director of Public Prosecutions moved to generally charge the offence under the Criminal Code and for them to be dealt with in the Supreme Court.
After the move was made, the Supreme Court saw an increase of 123 per cent in the number of new assault cases before it.
The Examiner can reveal, since Coroner Olivia McTaggart made her recommendation in July 2019, at least 36 sentences had been handed down in cases where strangulation, choking or suffocation was a factor.
In seven of those cases, rape, persistent family violence and indecent assault resulted in a heftier sentence. Of the remaining 29 cases the average sentence, which often included multiple charges, was 16 months' imprisonment.
Six of those 16 months, on average, were suspended. In three of the cases no prison term was delivered.
In all 36 cases the strangulation was perpetrated by a male, and all but two were perpetrated against a woman. Thirty of the cases were considered to have been an example of family violence.
Since Ms McTaggart made her recommendation sentencing comments have reflected the seriousness of strangulation.
In December 2019 Ashley Luke Haintz was sentenced to five years' imprisonment after pleading guilty to persistent family violence. Six episodes of violence against his partner were particularised in the case.
The six cases illustrated escalating violence in the relationship starting with punching and slapping and culminating in three separate instances of strangulation.
In sentencing Justice Gregory Geason said, "the process of choking can cause death very quickly and is a hallmark of the conduct I have outlined today. It goes without saying that that aspect is a further aggravating feature of your offending".
Almost one year later, in November 2020, Justice Stephen Estcourt sentenced Christopher James Brown to 21 months' imprisonment, which was wholly suspended, after he pleaded guilty to two charges of criminal code assault.
In sentencing Justice Escourt said, "it is now well understood that strangulation is a form of power and control that can have devastating psychological long-term consequences".
Repeated red flag
Ms McTaggart made her recommendations in the wake of the murder of Sorell woman Jodi Eaton in 2014.
Ms Eaton was strangled to death by Darren Michael Dobson.
Dobson had at least five recorded instances of choking women he knew. And less than two years before Ms Eaton was murdered Dobson was bailed on a charge of common assault he received for strangling his former partner.
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In the wake of her death, Samara Debnam petitioned for strangulation to be considered more closely by the Tasmanian government and judicial system.
Ms Debnam knew the seriousness of Dobson's actions, and his sickening method of violence against women, firsthand.
He had strangled her when they were together and she was pregnant.
A survivor of Dobson herself, Ms Debnam was staggered to learn that after strangling her he went on to strangle several more of his partners before ultimately murdering Ms Eaton.
For Ms Debnam, being a survivor of strangulation was something that she would never forget.
What I carry with me is the fact that I thought I was taking my last breath. That's what I carry with me.- Samara Debnam
"What I carry with me is the fact that I thought I was taking my last breath. That's what I carry with me. That sort of trauma can't be undone. It's just something I have to learn to live with now," she said.
Almost seven years on from the murder of Ms Eaton, Ms Debnam remains disappointed that action has not been taken on strangulation as a means of further protecting women.
She believes that strangulation should stand out as a red flag in instances of family violence and the government needs to urgently make strangulation a standalone offence.
"A perpetrator knows that by strangling a woman there is a very high chance that they'll kill her. That's just common sense. It doesn't take a genius or a split second to decide that," she said.
A perpetrator knows that by strangling a woman there is a very high chance that they'll kill her. That's just common sense. It doesn't take a genius or a split second to decide that.- Samara Debnam
"Strangulation of women is basically attempted murder. When I woke up in the hospital myself, I was told that it was two counts of Criminal Code assault against Darren and I felt that was quite a strange charge. I had cried out for help saying, 'he's trying to kill me, he's choking me, he's trying to kill me'."
Ms Debnam said, in reflecting on the 36 cases since Ms McTaggart's recommendation, a culture has continued to be bred that strangulation was a "normal occurrence".
"It's like it's normal to go to the level where you choke somebody. It's watered down within our system that it's not of a serious nature," she said.
"We can't continue to learn to live with the fact that women are losing their lives. It's not acceptable."
- 1800 RESPECT on 1800 737 732.
- Housing Connect Launceston on 1800 800 588.
- Family Violence Counselling and Support Service 1800 608 122.
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