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Western Australia’s New Sentencing Laws May Increase Indigenous Incarceration Rates

Experts say a proposed bill on mandatory sentencing will target young Indigenous Australians.
March 2, 2015, 2:33am

Image via Flickr user Amanda Slater

Changes in Western Australia's "three strikes and you're out" sentencing laws have drawn concern that they'll further increase the number of Aboriginal youths incarcerated in the state. The bill expands mandatory jail sentences for those convicted of home burglary for a third time by making it easier for prior records to count as "strikes". It also doubles the penalty to two years in jail for adults.

Previously a number of offences heard before a court in one session would count as one, now they will be counted individually. Minister for Police Liza Harvey introduced the bill for reading in March last year, and said it would to address the concern repeat burglary offenders aren't being sufficiently punished. She defended it in Parliament saying it's designed to "ensure that such offenders are kept out of circulation longer; and reflect community abhorrence of such offending."

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But Julian Cleary, a member of the Indigenous Rights Team at Amnesty International, told VICE the laws are in contrast to Premier Barnett's promises to address rates of Indigenous incarceration. He feels the government failed to target the underlying issues for these crimes. "It's pretty dire here, and this is just going to compound it," he added.

In Western Australia, Indigenous youths account for nearly 80 percent of all young people in detention. It's the highest level in the country, with the demographic making up only six percent of the general population. Indigenous juveniles in WA are also 43 times more likely to be detained than their non-indigenous counterparts.

The government insists the new laws are correcting existing sentencing loopholes, and are inline with their tougher approach to crime. Minister Harvey remarked the number of home burglaries in the state is at an "unacceptably high level". Nearly 28,000 burglaries took place in 2013, with many committed by repeat offenders that she claims the laws will target. "The counting system fails to fully reflect what the public regards as common sense and gives rise to loss of confidence in the administration of justice," she concludes.

At the end of last year President of Western Australia's Children's Court Denis Reynolds expressed his opinion on these laws in a speech to the University of Notre Dame. Relating the changes to his own work, he called the bill an "issue of critical importance." He echoed Julian in identifying the pressures it will place on the state's only detention centre, its impact on young offenders, and the large economic cost for taxpayers. "Putting something which is broken under more stress will inevitably lead to failure."

Judge Reynolds continued that it's his job to consider the "nature, circumstances, and seriousness of the offence," as well as the "circumstances of the young offender" when deciding what punishment to give. He added these laws will take that ability away from him, saying "It will result in the last window of opportunity to rehabilitate young offenders before they turn 18 years of age being lost."

In the speech, the President of WA's Children's Court posed a question to the lawmakers: "Do we as a community wish to unduly crush the most disadvantaged and vulnerable children in our community, or do we wish to reasonably support and protect them to try to rehabilitate them and help them reach their potential." With the Coalition government holding a majority in both houses, the bill seems like it'll be passed imminently, so Judge Reynolds will soon have his answer.

Follow Denham on Twitter: @denhamsadler