"It shames all of us"
The Chairman of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) has called for the mandatory sentencing laws in Western Australia and the Northern Territory to be immediately overturned. "If this is not done by the States themselves, then the Commonwealth must act before more people who shouldn't be in prisons die in custody", said Geoff Clark. "It should not have taken the threat of international humiliation to provoke action on this issue, but if that's what is needed to force the Prime Minister's hand, then so be it." Mr Clark will be in Geneva next week, and hopes to speak to the United Nations Commissioner on Human Rights, Mary Robinson, "to make clear the level of opposition within Australia to these draconian laws". The news that the Mary Robinson will investigate Australia's mandatory sentencing laws has been widely welcomed but not by the Prime Minister and his Liberal Party colleagues in the Northern Territory and Western Australia, who present the investigation as "interference" in Australia's domestic affairs. The Federal Government could easily have avoided the embarrassment of the UN investigation by using its powers to override the mandatory sentencing laws which violate international law and human rights standards. The NSW Aboriginal Land Council (NSW ALC) has renewed its calls for the Prime Minister to show his support for the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. "Our Prime Minister has loudly voiced support for Reconciliation", said NSW ALC Chairman Cr Rod Towney. "Yet in the eight years since the release of the Deaths in Custody report the rate of Aboriginal deaths in prison has increased. Mr Howard's inaction over mandatory sentencing is inexcusable", said Cr Towney. Repealing the mandatory sentencing laws would serve as a step towards cutting down the number of people, particular juveniles and indigenous Australians, in custody for trivial offences. "A mandatory sentencing approach removes judicial discretion and is morally offensive in its concentration on vengeance over rehabilitation", said Michelle Hogan, Assistant Secretary of the United Trades and Labor Council of South Australia. The UTLC joined with student and other groups and community members in a protest on February 25 in front of the Commonwealth building in Adelaide. Protesters gave out free biscuits and textas to highlight the minor nature of the crime which recently resulted in the death of a young Aboriginal boy in prison and a year-long sentence for a young man. In Sydney there will be a protest against mandatory sentencing on Sunday March 5 at Sydney Town Hall (12 noon). "It shames all of us" is the theme of the protest which will also be supporting Greens Senator Bob Brown's private member's Bill which would override mandatory sentencing laws for juveniles in the NT and WA. The Bill was introduced last year and has the support of the ALP, Australian Democrats and Peter Andren MHR. The Senate Committee inquiry into the Bill is due to report on March 9. A new coalition of groups opposing mandatory sentencing has been formed, called Sydney Coalition Against Unjust Sentencing. For more information phone: 02 9281 5100.