Call for review of juvenile sentencing

Natasha Robinson The Australian 7 January 2013

Racially selective sentencing by district magistrates
   A 12-month prison term for:
   • stealing a bundle of hamburger buns
   • possessing just over a gram of cannabis

Criminal lawyers are calling for an urgent review into consistency in sentencing following the release of statistics that show juvenile jail terms are handed out most frequently in NSW by magistrates in country towns, overwhelmingly to Aboriginal offenders.

The NSW Hunter and mid-north coast regions topped the list for the number of juvenile jail terms, followed by the northern and northwestern regions, the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research figures showed.

Magistrates in inner Sydney and Blacktown, which have large Aboriginal populations, handed out far fewer control orders, which land children in juvenile detention.

The release of the statistics comes as a study by the Queensland University of Technology's school of social justice shows Aboriginal offenders are more likely to receive a jail term in lower courts, even after considering factors such as past criminality.

The Weekend Australian reported that juvenile detention centres were becoming storing houses for Aboriginal children as widespread social dysfunction in urban public housing pockets created an underclass of repeat child offenders.

The Aboriginal Legal Service ACT/NSW raised concern that "the magistracy is viewing itself as having the responsibility to somehow address the effects of social disadvantage" via harsh jail terms.

Acting NSW Justice Minister Brad Hazzard said the government was very concerned Aboriginal young people -- who nationally are 31 times more likely than non-indigenous children to receive a jail term -- remained over-represented in the juvenile justice system, but he said crime statistics showed young people sentenced to detention in NSW had fallen in recent years.

"The NSW government is working hard to reduce Aboriginal overrepresentation in the juvenile justice system through tailored rehabilitation programs that address the causes of offending," he said. "As part of a review of the laws and practices of juvenile justice, the government is looking to increase its focus on early intervention, to work with young people, their families and schools . . . to try to deter them from a life of crime."

Principal solicitor at the Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT Stephen Lawrence said a culture of harsh sentencing had become entrenched in rural NSW towns with large Aboriginal minorities, where district courts routinely overturned disproportionate sentences such as that of Sam Davies, who received a 12-month jail term for stealing $70 of hamburger buns, and Laurence Boney, who received 12 months for possessing a little over a gram of cannabis. "The ALS believes the inequity in sentencing is entrenched and an urgent study by government into consistency in sentencing state-wide is required," Mr Lawrence said.

The call for a review of sentencing patterns came as the QUT research published by the Australian Institute of Criminology revealed indigenous people received relatively harsher sanctions than non-indigenous offenders over an 11-year period in NSW and South Australian lower courts, after controlling for factors including past criminal history.

Aboriginal offenders were 1.15 to 1.48 times more likely to be imprisoned in NSW, and 0.82 to 1.53 times more likely to receive a prison sentence in SA.