EDITORIAL: Laws made in the city hit the bush hardest

By Amy McQuire, March 6 2014, Tracker Magazine.

NATIONAL: Earlier this year, Australia mourned the passing of teenager Daniel Christie, the victim of a “Coward’s Punch” in Kings Cross on New Years Eve, writes AMY MCQUIRE*.

Daniel was an innocent, much-loved, handsome 18-year-old who had the world ahead of him. He was Australia’s 15th fatality from a king-hit punch in six years. The assault occurred only metres from where another teenager, Thomas Kelly, was fatally struck two years ago.

It’s sickening and heartbreaking that their lives were cut short by something so avoidable. They were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. It pulled at our heartstrings because it could have been any one else’s loved one – their son, their brother, their cousin or their friend.

Understandably, we as a society, wanted something done about it. The first step was re-naming “king hit” to “coward punch”. The second was for NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell to unveil outrageous proposals that have been almost universally condemned by the legal fraternity.

And they will only end up hurting the most vulnerable, and already most heavily incarcerated people in our society: Aboriginal people.

O’Farrell’s reforms include: a minimum mandatory sentence of 8 years, and a maximum sentence of 25 years for a ‘one punch’ assault where the offender was intoxicated by alcohol or drugs; new mandatory minimum sentences for serious assaults where drugs or alcohol are involved; 1:30 am lockouts and 3 am last drinks; increased on-the-spot fines for anti-social behaviour like Offensive Language (proposed fee: $500), Offensive Behaviour (proposed fee: $500) and Continuation of intoxicated and disorderly behaviour following a move on direction (Proposed fee: $1100).

We are living in a country which says locking up people is the answer, even though research shows it is not.

Locking up people does not deter crime and it is ridiculously expensive.

The outcry from legal groups and practitioners was immediate. Former NSW Director of Public Prosecutions Nicholas Cowdery wrote a piece for the Sydney Morning Herald saying the measures were not backed by evidence.

“In Premier O’Farrell’s plan, one wonders just what is sought to be achieved by increasing some criminal penalties; and there is no justification for introducing mandatory sentences of any size for some serious offences,” Mr Cowdery wrote.

“… Governments are fond of tough-sounding announcements of more criminal penalties — they must believe such measures are effective, but they are not.

There is plenty of evidence increases in penalties do not produce corresponding deterrent effects and that mandatory minimum sentences do not deter offenders, but complicate and add to the expense of criminal proceedings and require courts to act unjustly.”

Even NSW Attorney General Greg Smith is an opponent of mandatory sentencing, but has done almost a complete reversal in order to sell the laws. An article in the SMH earlier this month suggested Mr Smith could lose his portfolio because of his past position on the issue.

“One MP described watching Mr Smith defend laws he was clearly not in favour of as ‘’excruciating’’,”the SMH reported after Mr Smith was “grilled” by Liberal colleagues over his position on the reforms.

But perhaps the most concerning aspect of these laws is that it will undoubtedly impact Aboriginal people the hardest, particularly those in regional areas, who are hours away from the busy streets of Kings Cross.

In January I spent a couple of weeks out in north-west NSW, visiting Dubbo, Bourke and Brewarrina. These towns are like a police state. Aboriginal people are locked up at horrifically high rates, and often come into contact with the criminal justice system very young. They are almost given a prison sentence by the
circumstance of their geography and race.

These issues are undeniably complex and they will not be solved overnight. But the communities, particularly Bourke, are making a concerted effort to address the underlying issues that send schools of Aboriginal children to detention centres, where their future is then burdened so greatly that they will most likely, by the weight of the statistics against them, end up in jail as adults.

The cycle is continual and almost never-ending. But Bourke is hoping to break that through the great hope: Justice Reinvestment.

They are doing this despite working in an environment that favours locking up Aboriginal people as a solution, despite the ridiculous financial cost to the state and the destructive personal cost to Aboriginal families. Bourke is also swimming against the tide because these laws it will undoubtedly lead to more Aboriginal people being thrown into prison.

Increased fines will also harshly burden Aboriginal people in regional areas like Bourke, where there is hardly any employment and where many people have low literacy and numeracy skills.

Laws made following an outcry over the death of a white kid in Sydney will undoubtedly hurt the futures of black kids in the bush. They are the biggest victims of the mass imprisonment of Aboriginal people in this state.

The Aboriginal Legal Service ACT/NSW estimates that an extra 1000-2000 Aboriginal men could be incarcerated each year because of these laws.

The chief legal officer of the Aboriginal Legal Service for NSW, John McKenzie told the Guardian the laws, particularly the fines, were misdirected.

“Those fines in many cases, because of the poverty and unemployment of all too many Aboriginal people, will remain unpaid,” he told the Guardian.

“In NSW if you owe a debt to the state that means that after three months if it’s not paid then you will be stopped from obtaining a driver’s licence, or if you have one already in effect it will be cancelled and suspended and you won’t be able to register any motor vehicles either.”

“What that means is people who have fines they are unable to pay, then you’re going to have these snowballing amounts of state debt that will means Aboriginal people are going to be ruled out of being lawful drivers.”

He told the Australian:

“My biggest concern about Mr O’Farrell’s measures is at the lower end of the scale of assaults if they are cases involving alcohol that attract mandatory minimum sentences and extended maximums. The impact on the Aboriginal community would be vast – we are talking hundreds or even 1000 to 2000 additional people
convicted of assaults getting locked up for two years.”

Aboriginal disadvantage will never be solved if we are locking up our future generations.

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