The Guardian April 12, 2000


Mandatory sentencing:
Government arrogance, ineptitude

by Peter Mac

Concerted public pressure on the Howard Government has forced it to 
superficially tamper with the NT's mandatory sentencing laws. The deal with 
the Burke Government ends mandatory sentencing of youths under 18 only if 
they commit "minor offences" while leaving the mandatory sentencing laws 
intact. It also enhances NT police powers and does nothing to address WA 
mandatory sentencing laws. 

A group of Aboriginal service organisations has pointed out that the rate 
of imprisonment of women in the NT nearly tripled between 1994 and 1997, 
that 91 per cent of those incarcerated were Indigenous, and that much of 
the increase was attributable to mandatory sentencing.

They have also pointed out that mandatory sentencing does not allow the 
court to take into account any intellectual disabilities or mental illness 
from which the offender may be suffering.

Gordon Renouf, director of the North Australian Aboriginal Legal Aid 
Service, observed that the Prime Minister's talks with the Northern 
Territory Government did not cover the issue of mandatory sentencing of 
adults.

He stated that: "... the Prime Minister is showing indifference to the 
injustice caused to young people aged over 18 years. ... the laws are an 
ineffective way to reduce crime, ... regardless of the age of the 
offender."

Others have noted that special "diversionary" services for offenders are 
not available to those over 17 years of age.

The Australian Democrats have also pointed out that the Federal Government 
has completely ducked the issue of mandatory sentencing legislation in 
Western Australia.

The President of the Law Council of Australia, Dr Gordon Hughes, noted last 
week that: "Like the Northern Territory laws, the Western Australian 
Mandatory sentencing laws are ... in breach of the International Rights of 
the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination."

Democrats spokesman, Senator Brian Greig, stated that "... the Government 
cannot justify fixing some elements, while leaving others in place.... The 
ineffective and discriminatory than those in the Northern Territory. ... 
The only solution is for the laws ... to be scrapped completely."

ACTU Secretary Greg Combet stated that "The Government should hang its head 
in shame at the hurt it is inflicting on Aboriginal people with its blind 
insistence that there was `never a generation of stolen children', and its 
refusal to act against mandatory sentencing.... "

Regarding the Stolen Generations, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander 
Commission also declared that:

"The Stolen Generations resulted in devastation for the community, 
families, parents and children. Its effects have been felt by many 
generations and are still impacting on the community today. More than one 
million people have signed the Sorry Books around Australia. It is a pity 
the Federal Government seeks to continue to reopen these wounds, rather 
than help heal them."

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