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

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



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 would mean WA would see more Indigenous youth and Indigenous people sent to prison. Not only that, but the bill would cost $93 million to implement, a further $43 million to pay for the extra prison beds (costs not factored into the WA budget for 2015), and that doesn't include the social costs of further criminalising the state's youth.

According to Thalia Anthony, a senior lecturer at the University of Technology, Sydney, who has published widely on Indigenous relations with the law, mandatory sentencing regimes have been proven by research to be ineffective as a deterrent, and yet Ministers seeking to appear 'tough on crime' continue to turn to them, despite the lack of evidence for their efficacy.

'Mandatory sentencing is imposed for effect, rather than because of evidence-based research.'

Thalia says the price paid by Indigenous youth is a high one, and disproportionate to the offences committed. 'The major concern about having property crimes targeted is that it is a crime commonly committed among younger people and what could be regarded as minor offenders, rather than people who commit crimes out of malice. So it is targeting people who are not as culpable as people more deserving of imprisonment.'

Another commonly cited criticism of mandatory sentencing regimes is that they fail to take into account the underlying causes of the crimes they seek to punish. They remove the discretion a judge has to avoid a sentence of imprisonment, and thereby limit the state's response to the individual's crime.

'Crime generally is reflective of a social problem, and I would say caused by social problems. Racial problems, perhaps, or problems that ensue from colonialism and dispossession. There's a whole range of factors that underpin those crimes and the response [the bill] isn't about redressing those causal factors. It's a punitive response. It's a criminal justice response.'

The bill is expected to send an extra 206 adults and 60 juveniles to prison in the next four years.

Mathew DrogemullerMathew Drogemuller is a journalist, songwriter and fiction typer, whose articles, stories and lyrics focus on social issues. Tweets @matdrogemuller.

Prisoner image by Shutterstock.



Topic tags: Mat Drogemuller, Colin Barnett, mandatory sentencing, indigenous justice, crime, law



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Existing comments

The term 'Correctional Services" which every State uses seems to be a misnomer, as its main supposed 'remedy' for anti-social behaviour seems to be incarceration, which usually exacerbates anti-social attitudes rather than correcting them. The real solution is instilling high ideals, but this is almost impossible while there is a real or perceived sense of discrimination or injustice found within any group. Firstly this needs to be addressed, and then outlets need to be devised to allow the disadvantaged to find hope and fulfilment. Perhaps we need a new Solomon to arise and solve the problem.

Robert Liddy | 31 March 2015  

Governments keen to introduce a tough 'law and order' regime often also bring in mandatory sentencing legislation - it happened in spades with the Napthine Government in Victoria, with the result that jails in this state are overflowing. The legal profession, especially judges and magistrates, dislikes mandatory sentencing, and for a very good reason. The WA Govt. is to be condemned for increasing existing penalties, despite its professed desire to reduce the number of indigenous young people in jail.

Rodney Wetherell | 31 March 2015  

Nobody, aboriginal or otherwise suffers under the law if they do not deliberately break it!

john frawley | 31 March 2015  

While I would like to see the Bill defeated, I think it's important to not misrepresent the other side of the argument. Mathew writes of the proposed changes as if they were only about property crime, but really the main concern the government thinks it's addressing is violent home burglaries. The Minister says this of the Bill: "Firstly, it introduces mandatory minimum terms of imprisonment for those who commit serious violent and sexual offences in the course of an aggravated home burglary. Secondly, it amends the current counting rules for home burglary repeat offenders. Thirdly, it increases the minimum term of imprisonment for third-strike repeat adult offenders from 12 months to two years. In making these amendments, the government is determined to ensure that burglars who commit numerous home invasions, which can involve serious violent offences, are incarcerated for longer periods; to deter such offenders; to ensure that such offenders are kept out of circulation longer; and to reflect community abhorrence of such offending". I agree with Mathew that the change won't have much of a deterrence effect because the evidence doesn't suggest that it would, but how would Mathew address those two other points - to keep the offenders out of circulation longer, and to reflect the community's abhorrence of such crimes?

Russell | 31 March 2015  

A most interesting and necessary article. If youth have to be punished they should at the same time be educated in some schooling, a trade, etc. Simply imprisoning young people of any social group is not only expensive short-term, but for society in the long term.Youth need direction.Good role models.We have men committing domestic violence without any consequences. So I am wondering where is the justice system in this country.

Mira Zeimer | 31 March 2015  

john frawley: " Nobody, aboriginal or otherwise suffers under the law if they do not deliberately break it! "... This can seem quite a reasonable summation to those of us who have framed the laws of social behaviour to suit our own society. But the same laws can seem oppressive and frustrating to those who have been dispossessed of their land and traditions, and who feel discriminated against even if they try to adapt to the new customs that seem alien to their traditional way of life. More understanding and positive action is needed to ease assimilation.

Robert Liddy | 31 March 2015  

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