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Indigenous youth pay price for ’get tough on crime’ election promise

  • 31 March 2015

The Western Australian Government wants to increase mandatory prison sentences for burglars, in an attempt to keep their election promise of reducing crime.

Amnesty International Australia, however, is running a campaign against the Home Burglary Bill, with support from organisations like the Aboriginal Legal Service, claiming that the proposed changes will force judges to send 16-17 year olds to prison relatively minor property crimes, and therefore increase the already stark rate at which Indigenous youth are incarcerated in the state.

According to the WA Corrections Minister Joe Francis, who put forward the proposal, the 'high rates of Aboriginal youth in detention are an unacceptable waste of young lives and potential.'

To that effect, he has personally promised to reduce the number of Indigenous people in prisons, and yet one criticism of the Home Burglary Bill is that it will do exactly the opposite. Amnesty International claims that the bill, far from deterring burglars, will only serve to worsen the state's overwhelming Indigenous incarceration problem: already four out of five juveniles in custody are Indigenous.

But the problem of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youths being introduced to the criminal justice system early in their lives is not limited to one state or territory. Although WA has the highest rate of Indigenous incarceration in the country, as recent ABS statistics show, it is an issue we are facing across the nation. In the Northern Territory, for example, last year 78 per cent of people before criminal courts were Indigenous, whereas they account for only 30 per cent of the general population.

Many more of the young people, aged between 10 and 19, before the courts are Indigenous; almost half of the juveniles in custody in this country are Indigenous. They are sent to prison twice as often as young non-Indigenous people, a trend seen across all states for which data is available.

Indigenous youth are also more likely to be charged with burglary and other property crimes, a problem that the WA bill seeks to address. Under the current sentencing regime, implemented in 1996, burglars in WA face a minimum of 12 months' jail time if they break the 'three strikes' rule: three strikes and you're incarcerated. Research has shown, however, that the system has been ineffective at reducing home burglary crimes, which is presumably why the Minister feels it is time to increase the punishments.

Under the proposed law, penalties for home burglars would be increased, which