Indigenous Australia

WA mandatory sentencing regime unfairly targets First Nations youth

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(Image screenshot YouTube ABC report 'Remote community highlights Indigenous youth suicide concerns')

Indigenous Western Australians are being locked up in droves over ridiculously minor offences. Gerry Georgatos reports.

WESTERN AUSTRALIA suffers the nation’s highest incarceration rate and the First Nations people of the State suffer.

One in 13 of the State’s adult First Nations' males are presently incarcerated. When will it end?

Recently, a 20-year-old impoverished woman was hauled before a Western Australian Court for being destitute and hungry. This forced her to attempt walking out of a Salvation Army op shop with a few hand-me downs.

The Western Australian Police disgraced themselves in charging her. The judicial system humiliated itself in failing to throw out the case and, worse, in fining her.

This young woman does it tough and needs support but instead gets slapped with more than $1,000 in fines.

Where’s the so-called diversionary alternatives? Where’s the psychosocial support? Where’s the compassion, the understanding?

Her crimes?

“Stealing” $9.40 worth of food from Coles.

“Stealing” $15 worth of donated second-hand clothes from a Salvation Army op shop.

It’s hard to justify punishing someone for trying to keep themselves alive and sane.

"You realise my exasperation."

There’s a harrowingly skewed moral compass that chases down the poorest and most vulnerable for pennies. Contextually, billions of dollars that should be paid in tax are squirrelled away in tax havens by the top end of town. These outlaws are rarely pursued with the missionary fervour that hangs out to dry the poor.

The irony of the Salvos, a manifest benevolence to the poor, coming down hard on its brethren poor is dramatically breathtaking. Subsequent this young woman’s court ordeal, the Salvation Army management have discussed this young woman’s plight. They agreed that police should not have been called in and are inquiring further.

I shook my head as penalty after penalty – fines – were dished out to someone who cannot afford it. She now has $1,000 plus in fines she has no prospect of paying.

Do you think if this young woman could not afford $9.40 worth of food nor rags from an op shop, that she will all of a sudden be able to afford $1,000 in fines?


My heart ached for this young woman. While she was reduced to a statistic in that Court, and denied love and compassion, I remembered Johnny Warramarrba.

Johnny was a 15-year-old orphan. He “stole” $90 worth of stationery.

Johnny’s mother died when he was a baby. Johnny’s dad was killed in a car accident when he was 11. His grandmother looked after him.

It was 9 February 2000, when he was arrested in his Groote Eylandt home for the stealing of $90 of stationery.

There was no salt-of-earth rapport, no counselling, but he was journeyed by police 800 kilometres to Darwin and jailed in Don Dale.

Detention Centres are increasingly becoming populated with young people. (Source: ABC)

Don Dale is infamous for its lack of humanity. Johnny hanged himself in his cell, five days before he was due for release. The guards ordered him around. A prison officer told him to wash up. He would not budge. The prison officer confined Johnny to his cell. A little while later, Johnny was found hanging. Nine hours later, he died in the Royal Darwin Hospital.

This was nearly 20 years ago, but what’s changed? 

Ten years ago, a 12-year-old boy was arrested and gaoled for “stealing” a piece of chocolate — a Freddo frog. He was charged for stealing from a Coles Supermarket. He was locked up over 70 cents worth of chocolate. Seriously?

The kid had no previous convictions.

A piece of chocolate, hunger, second-hand clothes, stationery…

Are we really this heartless, this meanspirited, this immutable?

Who are we?

These children, our poor, are screaming for help and instead of listening to them, redeeming them, validating them, we brutalise, degrade, isolate – bash…

We can be a devastatingly cruel people.


We do live in draconian times. And with governments bent on punishing. Moreover, we suffer under the most classist, racist, heartless Commonwealth Government since 1901.

Only a week after Johnny’s suicide, a 22-year-old Groote Eylandt man was sentenced to gaol for a Christmas Day "crime" in 1998.

He was found guilty of stealing biscuits and cordial from the storeroom of one the nation’s richest mining companies — a manganese mob. Gaoled on Christmas Day so his family could experience a little more on the day — on Christmas.

The public outcries come and go, and are forgotten, but the broken and ruined lives mount.

Because of the forgetting, the inactions, we lose one after another and much of the same continues. You realise my exasperation; I have spent decades on campaigns to repair or amend legislation, and to introduce protections for what should be rudimentary conventions. The journey to social justice is a slow crawl and hence loses more people than it saves.

We need to continue the campaign to end mandatory sentencing, where compassion has no look-in.

In Western Australia, there’s the reprehension of mandatory sentencing. Although mandatory sentencing legislation assumes every offence of home burglary is equally serious, home burglary covers a wide range of circumstances. In one case, a 12-year-old boy with a traumatic life, was sentenced to 12 months detention for entering a house with others and stealing a wallet containing $4. The boy’s previous burglaries comprised of trespassing into a hotel laundry room, but taking nothing and of stealing a can of soft drink from a school canteen.

We are not spared by these stories being rare, they are common.


My friend and colleague, Megan Krakouer stated:

“It is my people who have been dealt levels of poverty and trauma no other peoples in our nation endure. Who are disproportionately subjected to Western Australian and Northern Territory courts with no agency to factor in mitigation, or their lives considered, because mandatory sentencing does not permit.”

The CEO of the Aboriginal Legal Services Western Australia, Dennis Eggington added:

“Mandatory sentencing laws are repugnant and do not hold any accord to the Fernando Principle, where judges and magistrates should at least have discretion to take into account the circumstances of many of our people. Mandatory sentencing is discriminatory and dangerous.”

The chairperson of the Geraldton Regional Aboriginal Medical Services, Sandy Davies said:

“Mandatory sentencing should be done away. It is not a face of justice. Three offences lands someone in gaol, but these offences may not be serious but mandatory sentencing does not care.”

The CEO of Ngalla Maya, Mervyn Eades also declared his objection to mandatory sentencing:

“In the last 18 weeks, my organisation has trained and employed 70 recently released prisoners. If vulnerable people can be guided by courts to programs like ours, this surely is preferable to transformational alternatives, but mandatory sentencing does not allow for this.”

Johnny Warramarrba should have lived a good life, scored the education he craved, not hanged himself, 15 years old, at Don Dale.

No child should ever be locked up for 70 cents worth of chocolate.

The young woman in court today should not have been fined. The Salvation Army should not have called the police, but given this young woman dignity and love.


The Scandinavians are by comparison a more redemptive and humane people, with a more empathetic judicial system. They have more psychosocial supports, less offending and less crime. The Scandinavians have the world’s lowest gaoling rates and lowest reoffending rates. Their prisons, fewer proportionally on the global scale, are restorative firmaments. They are places bent on transformation rather than on punishment — for instance Norway’s famous Bastoy Prison.

There is nothing as profoundly powerful as forgiveness, as love, as believing in others. If we believe in others, they will believe in themselves.

Forgiveness cultivated and understood keeps families solid – society too – as opposed to the corrosive anger that diminishes people to the darkest and direst places, into living mentally unwell. Anger is a warning sign to become unwell. Aberrance too.

You’d think love comes more natural to the human heart despite that hate can subsume. In the battle between love and hate, one will choose to love more easily if it’s the light of day.

Hate can never achieve what love ever so easily can. Hate and anger have filled prisons and juvenile detention centres, and cast many more into mental unwellness.

These children, youth, they are not criminally minded, but alone.

Crisis support services can be reached 24 hours a day: Lifeline 13 11 14; Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467; Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800; MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78; Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636.

Gerry Georgatos is a suicide prevention and poverty researcher. He is also the national coordinator of the National Suicide Prevention & Trauma Recovery Project. You can follow Gerry on Twitter @GerryGeorgatos.

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