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Thursday, 29 May 1997
Page: 4064

Senator MURRAY(8.17 p.m.) —I rise today to outline the concerns of the Australian Democrats over the recent media and court reports concerning a 12-year-old Aboriginal boy in Western Australia who has just been sentenced to one year's imprisonment under Premier Richard Court's `three strikes and you are out' legislation.

I would expect fair-minded Australians to have been appalled to hear of the punitive nature of what has now become a mandatory sentencing requirement for Western Australia's judiciary. It may well have been an unintended consequence for parliament but nevertheless the fact is that a 12-year-old boy is in gaol for a year.

The President of Perth's Children's Court, Judge Allan Fenbury, who sentenced the boy from the state's far north-west, criticised the legislation, saying that he had no choice but to order a term of detention. His Honour said:

The community should be able to find another way of dealing with a person like you rather than locking you up in a city institution. Locking you up is only going to provide a short-term solution to your offending. I think you are a small 12-year-old boy from the north-west with social problems that are not your fault . . .

It is a bitter indication to the indigenous community that, even after the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and at the same time as the Reconciliation Convention in Melbourne, we are still repeating what are now the obvious mistakes of the past. In fact, I am reliably informed that the first person ever hanged in Western Australia was a small boy of similar age, for the crime of stealing bread.

What does it say about a country whose European occupation of this land was effectively born from an oppressive penal system in the United Kingdom? Have we so readily forgotten the injustice of our own colonial origins? Are we slipping back to old standards instead of moving onwards to a more moral, more just society?

The Australian Bureau of Statistics national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander survey in 1994 revealed that 20 per cent of indigenous persons aged over 13 years had been arrested in the last five years. That is one in five kids over 13 years of age. Racists would like to point to these figures as an indication of the nature of Aboriginal society. History and humanity tell us otherwise. Rational people know that these figures are indeed indicators of racism and the consequences of racism. I recognise that these are not issues capable of easy resolution, but compassion and commitment would help enormously.

Even more recently, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commissioner, Mr Mick Dodson, reported in October 1996 the following disturbing facts:

There were fifteen juvenile deaths in custody between May 1989 and May 1996. As the indigenous juvenile population grows proportionately larger than the non-indigenous juvenile population, deaths of young Indigenous people can only be expected to increase if significant measures are not taken. The cases of six other adult Indigenous people who died in custody demonstrated very early and frequent contact with the criminal justice system.

Mr Dodson went on:

The number of indigenous kids who are brought before Children's Courts (rather than dealt with in diversionary schemes) remains disproportionately high in comparison with non-Indigenous kids. The rate at which they are then imprisoned in comparison with non-Indigenous kids is even more pronounced.

He went on to recommend that:

Procedures for the transfer of juveniles to adult prisons need to be examined urgently.

Police car chase deaths are increasing overall, and in most jurisdictions police services need much more stringent policies set out when pursuit is desirable in the public interest.

Community policing principles need to be implemented to better deal with indigenous people occupying public areas and with Indigenous juvenile delinquency.

Juvenile justice and family conferencing schemes with adequate cultural sensitivity and Aboriginal community involvement can be effective solutions to juvenile crime problems, but schemes which increase alienation and which are imposed by police on the families of the offender and the victim will not succeed.

Indigenous juveniles in many jurisdictions now face laws which place more impediments in the way of seeking bail than they faced at the time the Royal Commission reported.

Mick Dodson has disturbingly illustrated for us that, during the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, of all the indigenous deaths in institutional settings, juveniles represented 6.1 per cent. These are the deaths of children we are talking about. In the post royal commission period, the five indigenous juvenile deaths account for 6.3 per cent of deaths in institutional settings. In other words, there has been no improvement.

Just this week, the human rights and equal opportunity report into the `stolen generation' has illustrated further disturbing facts. We have learnt that indigenous people who were forcibly removed from their families are twice as likely to report having been arrested by police and having been convicted of an offence. They are three times as likely to report having been in gaol. Western Australia, which has that `three strikes and you're out' legislation and the other legislation it has, needs to rethink its response to these horrific statistics as the current legislation will in all likelihood see these figures tragically increase.

The whining, ugly nature of the hardening political Right and the equivocating leadership of this government represents not ignorance but denial. Without enormous effort from all sides and acceptance of responsibility, indigenous people and indigenous young people will continue to die in penal and corrective institutions. For indigenous Australians, the past is about what white Australia did to their black brothers and sisters. It is to our sorrow that for many indigenous Australians the present is often no better.

No-one is suggesting for one minute that villains should not be dealt with appropriately, but surely this nation, specifically the state of Western Australia, has gone way too far when it incarcerates 12-year-olds as villains with apparently no hope of counselling or rehabilitation. Have justice, compassion and principles of rehabilitation been fully relegated and diminished? Has our balance gone—that is, a balance which should be our duty to the young against our legitimate need for a safe and lawful society?

There is nothing correct about the rate of indigenous incarceration in this country. There is nothing correct about escalating deaths in custody. It needs enormous political and social will to end this state of affairs. I find it hard to believe that Premier Richard Court would wish to leave as part of his political epitaph the responsibility for seeing the figures of Aboriginal and young Aboriginal incarcerations increasing.

We are now, in my belief, seeing the effects of what happens when parliaments and governments de-emphasise compassion and understanding and overemphasise the pursuit of economic priorities at the expense of social and community priorities. For me, the balance has clearly been lost. Surely, we have not written off 12-year-olds. The legislatures of this nation are locking up poor, young, black villains whilst other rich, white, old villains either get laughable sentences or end up laughing at us. At each end of the scale, we have Christopher Skase still at large and a 12-year-old boy in 12 months custody in Western Australia. Alan Bond, with his billion dollar crime, will only serve twice the time of that 12-year-old boy.

In economic terms, it will cost the community a lot more to have this boy imprisoned than it would to have a social security infrastructure that alleviates the compounded issues in his life. If this carries on, I fear it will cost us a lot more in the long run than just dollars. In the wake of the stolen generations, it is my belief that it is imperative we do not create the `discarded generations'.