The Guardian February 23, 2000


Action to end brutal mandatory sentencing laws

There have been protest actions against mandatory sentencing in Sydney, 
Canberra, Hobart, Perth, Alice Springs and Darwin during the past week 
demanding the immediate repeal of mandatory sentencing laws. The actions, 
which grew in response to the death on February 9 of a 15-year-old boy died 
in custody in the Northern Territory, are set to continue.

His death was preventable but for the Northern Territory mandatory 
sentencing laws which punish petty property offences. The boy's crime was 
stealing less than $50 worth of texta colours and paints. 

He had been sentenced to 28 days in jail and sent 800 kilometres away from 
his home on Groote Eylandt. He hanged himself only four days before his 
sentence was complete.

Later in the week a young man was sentenced to a year in jail after 
stealing biscuits and cordial  cost $23. Two other young people who were 
with him will also serve time.

These three young people will spend a year away from their community. There 
is the cost in monetary terms (an estimated $120,000 to keep the three in 
jail) and there is the cost in terms of the alienation and damage done to 
those three young people.

"Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people recognise the need for law 
enforcement", said Rod Towney, Chairman of the NSW Aboriginal Land Council. 
"Our communities are affected by crime just as every other Australian 
[community].

"But mandatory sentencing and laws like these are completely against the 
recommendations from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody 
to use jail as a last resort.

"In a very real way, the impact of mandatory sentencing is Stolen 
Generations all over again  the authorities are still taking away and 
locking up our kids.

"Must we drag practices of the last century into this one? Is this what we 
want for future Australia?", asks Mr Towney.

Stolen children

Prime Minister Howard has refused to say "sorry" to the Stolen Generations 
of Aboriginal people claiming that the present Government is not 
responsible for what had happened in the past.

But the system of breaking up Aboriginal families and removing children and 
young people from their families and communities continues today  and 
mandatory sentencing in the Northern Territory, and the "three strikes and 
you're in" legislation in Western Australia are the most brutal examples of 
that.

In the Northern Territory, "First offenders must be sentenced to a minimum 
term of imprisonment, no matter how good their character might be, no 
matter how trivial the offence, and irrespective of all mitigating 
circumstances", explained Brett Collins of the Justice Action organisation 
in NSW.

There is no evidence that mandatory sentencing works as a deterrent.

Mandatory sentencing shifts discretion from the judiciary to the police to 
decide who is sent home with a warning or talk to the parents and who goes 
to jail.

As a result working class and, in particular, indigenous Australians are 
disproportionately punished with jail sentences.

The Northern Territory and West Australian Governments have announced they 
will not repeal the laws.

Federal Greens Senator Bob Brown introduced a private Members' Bill last 
year with the support of ALP, Democrats for the Commonwealth Government to 
override the mandatory sentencing laws for juveniles in the NT and WA.

A Senate Committee has held public hearings in Darwin, Alice Springs and 
Perth. Final public hearings were on February 17 in Canberra.

The Senate Committee is due to report on March 9.

Meanwhile, add your voice and demand justice and the repeal of mandatory 
sentencing laws.

You can do this by writing, faxing or emailing the daily press and your 
local papers, Prime Minister John Howard in Canberra, your Federal MP and 
Senators as well as the WA and NT Governments.

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