26February 2013


Proposed Extension to Mandatory Sentencing “Despicable” says ALSWA

4February 2013

The proposed extension to mandatory and minimum sentencing laws is nothing short of despicable and there is a groundswell of support from many in the know, that tougher penalties are not working in WA, according to the Aboriginal Legal Service of Western Australia (ALSWA).

With the State Election now only a matter of weeks away, Peter Collins (ALSWA Director of Legal Services) said that Government’s had a responsibility to seriously explore alternative options of dealing with offenders, rather than continuing to adopt a tougher on crime approach.

“This sort of approach does not work and never will. This is nothing more than an exercise in the politics of fear. By proposing to extend mandatory sentencing, both major parties have shown that they are more interested in looking tough on crime than in actually tackling it” said Mr. Collins.

  • Mandatory sentencing laws do not deter offenders from committing crimes, do not reduce crime and never will. The recent spike in WA’s home burglary rates demonstrates this. The only thing mandatory sentencing has ever achieved is to disproportionately target the most disadvantaged groups in society, especially Aboriginal people.
  • WA imprisons more Aboriginal people than any other State or Territory in the nation, at 20 times the rate of non-Aboriginal people. The rate at which WA imprisons its Aboriginal kids is also the highest in Australia, with an Aboriginal child 40 times more likely to be in custody than a non-Aboriginal child.
  • The underlying drivers of high Aboriginal imprisonment rates are many and complex, and include all the obvious social, economic and educational disadvantages that plague our Aboriginal communities. But systemic discrimination has always been a powerful factor as well, and these imprisonment rates ultimately reflect that WA and the NT are the only two jurisdictions in the nation with mandatory sentencing.

ALSWA is also concerned that the proposed extensions, which are supported by both parties, will result in WA’s Aboriginal imprisonment rates soaring even higher.

“People may not care too much about that now, but they might when they learn how much it’s going to cost to build new jails to accommodate everyone” said Mr. Collins.

Mr. Collins said that recidivism amongst Aboriginal prisoners was extremely high, but that imprisonment wasn’t a deterrent. “The last thing on the mind of most people when they break into a house is the thought of going to jail if they get caught”.

ALSWA says that crimes committed by Aboriginal people are often motivated by poverty, substance abuse or mental illness, or any combination of the three, and that the changes proposed by the Liberal Party will invariably deliver injustice.

“The risk of injustice in the case of juveniles, the mentally ill and intellectually impaired is particularly acute. It’s hugely concerning that under the Liberals’ proposal, a statutory minimum term of two years would apply for repeat home burglaries committed by juveniles over the age of 16 years” said Mr. Collins.

He said that ALSWA acts for many young people who may commit a cluster of home burglaries over a short period of time, but get their lives back on track and never reoffend. Mr. Collins says that under this proposal, these kids would now be locked up for a minimum of two years.

“Imagine a 16 year old Aboriginal boy who suffers from foetal alcohol syndrome, is illiterate and lives in abject poverty who commits three burglaries by entering houses through unlocked doors to stealing food because he is desperately hungry. Under the proposed changes, this boy, who could be any one of our clients, is a victim of the circumstances of his birth, but under proposed laws, would be imprisoned for two years”.

ALSWA says there is no justice in that outcome and with this approach, the important principle of rehabilitating young offenders simply goes out the window. The proposed changes would also impact adversely on victims of crime. Offenders facing a lengthy mandatory jail term would have little incentive to plead guilty. Many would simply roll the dice, take their chances by pleading not guilty and go to trial. Victims of crime and their families would face added emotional trauma arising from the inevitable delays before cases are finalised, as well as the burden of giving evidence in court.

ALSWA has called for a fresh approach for many years, one that seriously addresses the underlying causes of crime, rather than simply imposing tougher penalties.

“There’s a crisis in WA’s criminal justice system that is entirely of our political leaders’ own making. ‘Tough on crime’ measures like mandatory sentencing might placate a frightened community, but they do nothing to solve the underlying problem. If our major political parties were really serious about tackling crime, they would show some real leadership and start acting on the evidence in front of them, and mandatory sentencing laws would be the first thing to go” said Peter Collins.