In upcoming months, Melbourne criminal defence lawyer George Defteros will be celebrating a milestone in his professional life; 40 years on the job. An accomplishment of this magnitude is of significance for every working man and woman, for Defteros though, the importance of him being still on the job borders on the remarkable.

His passion and knowledge of the law, perspicacity, analytical eye, and inventiveness have attracted him a rather unsavoury clientele through these years. And in retrospect, and despite all the hurdles and bumps along the way, it turns out that he managed to handle it all right, thank you very much!

Defteros is not, and will never be, your everyday criminal lawyer. Let’s mention Alphonse Gangitano, Graham Kinniburgh, and Mario Condello.

They were some of the major figures in Melbourne’s organised crime scene some 30 years ago, when a kill a week was just routine.

His clientele back then led him to uncharted territory. He had to abandon practicing for at least four years to concentrate on clearing his name, cutting all ties with his not so kosher clients, but most importantly, to protect his family.

Defteros managed to achieve all the above and to come out of it as fit and passionate about his craft as he had always been. You have probably heard his name recently in the media. The cases that choose him are, more often than not, complicated, onerous and in need of a courageous trooper to handle them.

In the meantime, his insight into the crime scene of Melbourne, a scene that has been changing, as he noted recently, is one of the valuable assets that he accumulated during his rather turbulent career.

I caught up with him when the rhetoric about African gangs, mandatory sentencing, stricter sentences overall, and the claim of fearful Melbournites locking themselves in their homes after dark, was rampant in the public arena. Further than that, it is obvious that the Liberals are almost certain that crime can be their best ‘defence’ in the infrastructure ‘offensive’ of the Andrews government, boosting their prospects to win office in November. This means that law and order is here to stay as an issue.

So what is his take on the Melbourne crime scene? According to Defteros, the cause of a good chunk of the crimes committed today in Victoria is still drugs, the so-called ‘African gangs’, are not a thing; sentencing for criminals may not be as feeble as a paper cut for the office worker, but it is being seen by the criminal world as an occupational hazard; and only education can bring some positive change.

Criminal defence lawyer George Defteros. Photo: AAP/Glenn Hunt 

What is the binding theme in the Melbourne crime scene today? 
Synthetic drugs. I see the drug scene getting out of control. Synthetic drugs are a real problem. They are easy to make, accessible, and they are distributed by people who act on an ad hoc basis and a lot of them are users themselves. These drugs are easy to obtain, the chemicals are easy to obtain, the recipes are easy to obtain; they are a real problem and I see [it] escalating.

Ice, and the use of it, is at the centre of a lot of crime including very dangerous home invasions. There are a lot of people using the substance, and for whatever reasons, it gives them that false sense of bravado to go and commit those offences.

You mentioned home invasions and given the recent publicity, adverse or otherwise, one cannot help think ‘African gangs.’ Do you really see that overrepresentation of African youth involved in criminal activities?
They are splinter groups; I would not use the term gangs. They are not confined to a particular area and you can’t point the finger to one particular subculture or community, and say they are responsible for it. It is not as if it is a great large group of people that are controlled by one particular entity. They are splinter groups of entities that are involved in this type of manufacture and trafficking. Individuals come into play, they get involved with a particular group, and then they move on into another group and they will go and do another area and they will repeat these crimes. It is the drugs that create that ferocity of crimes. These so-called gangs are a variety of individuals who are not confined to a particular subculture or community background. It is complicated, but you cannot talk about a problem of ‘African gangs.’

There is a push for a harsher approach towards these types of criminals, and stricter sentences had been widely discussed. What do you think?
You are never going to eradicate people that are involved in the drug scene and address it by increasing sentences or making examples of people, in terms of general deterrence. They are career criminals; some of them look at a jail sentence as an occupational hazard. Even if it is a longer one. They come out and they go on a merry-go-round and we are back to square one.

Synthetic drugs and the crime they generate is getting to a real problem stage. And much more so than statistics may suggest, it never used to be this way. There was a subculture, heroin users, but now I think it is getting out of control.

I think that education needs to address the use of drugs from a very early age as to how drugs affect a person’s mind, their health, the subculture, their standing in society. Just like we teach children hygiene from a very early stage in their lives we have to teach them about drugs and the damage they cause.

We have been doing some work in this space for some years but it is not enough. It has to be a concerted effort. Governments have to pour money into it. Education curriculums need to address it. You have to attack the source and that is the potential user of the substance.

* Victorian crime statistics show that just one per cent of offenders in a 12-month period up to September 2017 were Sudanese-born. The largest group of offenders in Victoria are Australian-born, followed by New Zealand-born. Figures released in March show the number of burglary/break and enter offences in Victoria has dropped by 15.2 per cent from last year. Victoria’s total crime rate last year fell by six per cent, the largest drop in 12 years. (Source: Victorian Crime Statistics Agency)