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Mandatory Sentencing in WA and the Northern Territory - WILPF letter to John Howard.

Date: Fri, 24 Mar 2000


Rt. Hon. John Howard MP

Prime Minister of Australia

Parliament House


Dear Prime Minister,

Re: Mandatory Sentencing in WA and the Northern Territory

Following Mr Ruddock's recent appearance before the UN CERD, we write to you now on behalf of the Australian Section of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom concerning the mandatory sentencing laws in Western Australia and the Northern Territory. While we will also write on this matter to the Attorney-General and to the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory, we are nevertheless especially addressing you as Prime Minister on this issue in view of the gravity of the situation.

We note that the UN CERD has advised [the Immigration and Reconciliation Minister],Mr Ruddock that the Australian Government should have done more to introduce legislation to stop mandatory sentencing by Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

We also note that the CERD reported figures showing that while Aboriginal people make up 25 per cent of the population of the Northern Territory, they nevertheless make up 70 per cent of its prison population. As Indigenous Australians have been the most imprisoned people in the world, with the Northern Territory having an imprisonment rate three times the Australian national average, we believe that for the Commonwealth to allow the mandatory sentencing laws to continue to operate is a racist act on the part of all the governments concerned. It has clearly been viewed as such internationally with the CERD branding the rates of incarceration for Indigenous Australians as "astonishing".

As an organisation working internationally and locally for improved living conditions, equality for women, racial and economic justice for all, and an end to all forms of violence, WILPF writes now to add the voice of our organisation to community calls for the Commonwealth to use its constitutional powers of intervention to ensure that the mandatory sentencing laws in the Northern Territory and Western Australia no longer operate to bring Australia in breach of our obligations under various UN conventions to which we are willing signatories.

Of particular concern are the laws requiring mandatory sentencing of juveniles. Mandatory sentencing of juveniles clearly contravenes several key aspects of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which requires that, in all instances, the best interests of children should be a primary consideration and that detention and jailing of juveniles should be a measure of last resort. While the mandatory sentencing laws are presently operating to detain and jail juveniles for minor offences, their operation is clearly bringing us in breach of the Convention.

Mandatory sentencing fails to allow the judiciary to make the complex judgements necessary to take into account a child's age, the facts of any particular offence or the individual circumstances of the person. In this respect, mandatory detention restricts the court's capacity to ensure that the punishment is proportional to the seriousness of the offence and fails to allow for more rehabilitative options. These minimum sentences are in contravention of Article 37(b) of the Convention which requires that "deprivation of liberty not be arbitrary and is a measure of last resort". In addition, mandatory sentencing puts young Indigenous Australians in a position where they are exposed to criminal influences at a very young age.

In various public comments (ABC's 7.30 Report), Mr Burke has conceded that there has been no real decrease in property-related crime over the three years of mandatory sentencing in the NT. As research by legal organisations in the NT supports this, we urge you now to take the necessary steps to ensure that legislation is passed which will ensure that these immoral, unjust and racist laws are superseded.

We thank you for your kind attention and look forward to your response on this matter.

Yours sincerely

Mary Ziesak and Cathy Picone

Joint National Coordinators

WILPF, Australian Section

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