By Rohan Gaiswinkler and Peter Johnston
DARWIN — In a tragic event which puts the Northern Territory's mandatory sentencing laws under the national and international spotlight, a 15-year-old Aboriginal boy committed suicide here on February 10, while serving a mandatory 28-day prison sentence.
He was imprisoned at the Don Dale Juvenile Detention Centre for stealing pens, pencils, paints and textas, which the court was told were worth less than $50.
Under the Northern Territory's mandatory sentencing regime, any person over the age of 17 found guilty of a relevant property offence is liable to a mandatory minimum sentence of 14 days' imprisonment for the first offence, 90 days' imprisonment for one prior conviction, and one year's imprisonment for two prior convictions.
Any person aged 15 or 16 found guilty of a relevant property offence is liable to a mandatory minimum sentence of 28 days' detention for one prior conviction.
However the Central Australian Youth Justice Coalition has pointed out "The current scheme remains riddled with anomalies, despite attempts to clarify the law by the courts, and to correct it by the legislature. For example, a youth who has previously been found guilty of a property offence committed when he was 15 years old, and who then commits a second offence, is required to serve 28 days in detention if he is under 17, but only 14 days in prison if he is over 17."
Three hundred people gathered outside the Darwin magistrate's court on February 11 in an emotion-charged vigil to mourn the death and protest against the vengeful and draconian legislation.
John Weluk of the Miwatj Regional Council told the crowd that the boy's death was avoidable and that the offence should have been dealt with under Aboriginal customary law.
John Ah Kit, territory member for Arnhem, announced a public rally which will take place on the February 22, at noon in Raintree Park.
"Mandatory sentencing is reactionary and racist", said Jo Ellis, a Resistance activist attending the rally. "The Country Liberal Party government pushed it through parliament with full knowledge that Aboriginal people would be disproportionately affected by it."
Mandatory sentencing legislation contradicts the findings of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, which stated that imprisonment should be a punishment of last resort when sentencing Aboriginal people.
In March, the president of the Law Council of Australia, Fabian Dixon, in a letter of protest to the NT government, described the legislation as "harsh", "unfair", "ineffective", and "draconian".
The Law Council, which represents approximately 35,000 practising lawyers, strongly opposes mandatory sentencing.
Dixon said "the legislation removes the discretion of the courts to decide a penalty which fits the individual circumstances of the crime and the offender. To prevent the courts from making such decisions is a very dangerous path for justice to tread.
"This legislation has led to many people being imprisoned for trifling offences, for example, 14 days' gaol for the theft of a can of beer. It is ridiculous that people are being gaoled for such minor offences, particularly where they have had no prior convictions.
"Research has shown that mandatory sentencing has had little effect on the existing pattern of unlawful entry offences in the Darwin region, and has caused little change in public perception of property-targeted offences.
"In short, the statistics completely rebut any argument that mandatory sentencing legislation is being effective in deterring offenders or reducing recidivism rates."