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Abolition of Mandatory Jail Laws Gains Support

By Sonny Inbaraj

DARWIN, Australia, Mar 29 (IPS) - A Northern Territory lobby group comprising lawyers has launched a civil disobedience campaign here to highlight its opposition to mandatory sentencing laws for juveniles, which have been described as discriminatory.

Members of the 'Territorians for Effective Sentencing' are considering getting themselves arrested to dramatise their cause. The group's spokesperson, Cassandra Goldie, said they plan to steal flowers from outside Parliament building in Darwin to call attention to what they say are trivial offences punishable by jail terms under mandatory sentencing.

A 15-year-old Aboriginal boy was slapped a 28-day jail term for stealing paint and stationery worth less than 100 U.S. dollars from a school underthe mandatory sentencing law. He killed himself days before he was to be freed, his death sparking calls for a review of the law.

A United Nations committee at the weeekend blasted Australia over these laws and for the treatment of its indigenous population, saying Canberra could be in breach of the UN Convention to Eliminate Racial Discrimination.

After a week of hearings in Geneva, which included evidence given by Australia's Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Race Discrimination called on the Howard government to consider overriding mandatory sentencing laws in the Northern Territory and Western Australia.

The UN committee also expressed strong concern about race discrimination issues in Australia -- those affecting Aborigines such as native title and the ''stolen generation''.

''The committee expressed a number of serious concerns about the situation in Australia with the Native Title Act as amended; mandatory sentencing; with the situation of reconciliation; the great disparities in the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights between indigenous populations and non-indigenous,'' said Gay McDougall who was rapporteur at the Geneva hearing.

''We identified a number of areas that brought us grave concerns and caused us to question whether or not the situation is compatible with Australia's obligations under the racial discrimination convention,'' added McDougall, a prominent American attorney who supervises more than 100 Washington-based lawyers in human rights litigation around the world.

The United Nations started to examine mandatory sentencing laws in the Northern Territory and West Australia at the request of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan who visited Canberra late last month. The investigations began after the Feb 10 suicide of the Aboriginal boy in a Darwin juvenile detention centre.

The boy from Groote Eylandt, 800 km from Darwin, was the first person to die in custody in the Northern Territory while serving a 28-day mandatory sentence. Authorities said there were no suspicious circumstances in his death.

The controversy escalated days later when a 20-year-old Aboriginal man was found guilty of stealing a box of biscuits and a drink worth 23 dollars on Christmas Day 1998 and sentenced to 12 months in jail.

Speaking to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, McDougall said Australia's position on mandatory sentencing was problematic and the UN viewed with alarm the large numbers of Aborigines in jail.

''It (mandatory sentencing) appears to target offences that are regularly committed, disproportionately so, by indigenous Australians -- especially young people,'' she said.

''We just viewed with alarm the sort of grossly disproportionate numbers of indigenous people in the criminal justice system, and we noted the recommendations from the Royal commission, one of which was to try to take effective steps to reduce the population of indigenous in jails by diversionary programs and other things. And it appeared to us that things were actually going in the wrong direction.''

Under Northern Territory law if juveniles aged 15 and 16 commit more than two property crimes, they must be sentenced to 28 days detention. Youths 17 and older are considered adults and are jailed for 14 days for a first offence, unless extraordinary circumstances can be proved. The penalty increases to three months jail for the second offence and 12 months for subsequent offences.

In West Australia, if a person aged 10 or older is convicted of an offence of home burglary and has two or more previous convictions for the same offence, on different occasions before the court, the court must impose a penalty of one-year imprisonment.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, at the end of the UN committee sitting McDougall asked Immigration Minister Ruddock: ''How is it that a highly developed, industrialised State such as Australia has been unable to bring this two per cent of its population up to a reasonable standard of living?''

While Aboriginal activists acknowledge some things have changed for the better for indigenous Australians, dispossession, racism and marginalisation, however, still continue.

''In the past two years virulent expressions of racisim towards Asian peoples have merged with an appalling level of denigration of indigenous Australians,'' said Mick Dodson, director of the Sydney-based Indigenous Law Center.

Statistics published in the Darwin-based Northern Territory News indicate the territory's indigenous population comprises 27 per cent of its overall population and forms 70 per cent of the jail population.

For juvenile offenders aged between 10 and 17 years, said the paper, the incarceration rate in the Northern Territory is 103.5 per 100,000 compared to 48 per 100,000 in New South Wales and 63 per 100,000 in Western Australia -- two areas considered as having the highest crime rates in the country.

Speaking to reporters in Geneva, Ruddock strongly rejected the recommendation for Australia to review its mandatory sentencing laws. He accused the committee of unreasonably intruding into Australia's domestic affairs in some of its recommendations.

Australia's Attorney-General Daryl Williams said the UN committee report was disappointing. ''The committee seems to make a practice of relying exclusively on information provided by non-government organisations and ignoring that provided by the government,'' Williams said.

''It's an unbalanced report that involves a wide-ranging attack that intrudes unreasonably into Australia's domestic affairs.''

Former chairman of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, Pat Dodson, labelled the UN committee's response as humiliating and said: ''It will condemn us in all the forums where we seek to extend our influence and promote ourselves as international players.''

''We can not afford the kind of condemnation that we've received,'' Dodson said. (END/IPS/ap-hd-pr/si/ral/00)


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