'Freddo Frog' charge reveals police racism

November 25, 2009

Were it not so outrageous, it could almost be funny. A 12-year-old Aboriginal boy was brought before a Western Australian court on a charge of receiving stolen goods. He had accepted a chocolate Freddo Frog worth 70 cents from a friend who had allegedly stolen it.

But the incident is far from amusing. The case gave a revealing insight into the entrenched racism of WA's "justice" system. Indigenous people in WA are the most imprisoned people in the world.

The supermarket owners who reported the theft did not ask police to prosecute the 12-year-old. However, police laid two charges of receiving stolen goods against the child — the second charge was for "receiving" a stolen novelty sign worth $4.

Police seized the young boy when he arrived at school in Northam, an hour east of Perth, on the morning of November 16. The police kept him imprisoned for several hours before his court appearance.

WA Aboriginal Legal Service lawyer Peter Collins, who represented the boy in court, condemned the imprisonment.

"The conditions in those cells are appalling and completely ill-equipped to hold young children", he told reporters on November 16.

"The fact of the matter is he's 12, and these are the most trivial charges imaginable, and it can hardly be a justification for this kid to be brushed up against the courts to teach him a bit of a lesson.

"It's not hard to imagine that if this had happened to a non-Aboriginal kid from an affluent Perth suburb with professional parents that this wouldn't be the situation."

Police attempted to justify the charges, maintaining it was a last resort.

"No argument that the police can advance to me will convince me that a 12-year-old boy had reached the end of the line with diversionary processes when you're talking about a Freddo frog", Collins said.

WA Children's Commissioner Michelle Scott told the November 18 7.30 Report that the police had consistently failed to comply with the 1994 Young Offenders Act. The Act says children should only face court for the most serious offences, but Scott said WA Police are bringing more children to court than before.

Australian Institute of Criminology figures show a stark racial distinction in how young offenders are treated nationwide.

The 7.30 Report's Ros Thomas said new institute figures "suggest that seven out of 10 white juvenile offenders are dealt with by way of a caution. But police hand out cautions to only three out of 10 young Aboriginal offenders."

On November 17, following worldwide media attention, police withdrew the charges and referred the matter to the juvenile justice team.

However, the case is not an isolated incident. Collins told the 7.30 Report: "This sort of thing goes on a daily basis in WA, and it receives very little attention, and the individuals who for the most part are on the receiving end are Aboriginal juveniles."

Other statistics confirm this. The November 16 Age said in WA, Indigenous people aged between 10 and 17 are 45 times more likely than non-Indigenous young people to go to jail.

Nationally, young Indigenous people are 30 times more likely than non-Indigenous youth to be imprisoned.

A July 10 ABC Online report said Indigenous youth make up just 5% of all young people, but make up 58% of those in juvenile detention. Seventy percent of incarcerated children under 14 years old are Indigenous, the Age said on November 18.

WA's particularly bad figures reflect the "tough on crime" populism of the state Liberal government.

On July 11, the Perthnow website reported WA Inspector of Custodial Services Neil Morgan said prisoner numbers were increasing by about 25 persons a week, leading to serious overcrowding. He warned this was increasing violence inside jails.

WA Prison Officers Union secretary John Welch agreed. "It must be obvious that if you shoehorn two or three prisoners in a cell designed for one, or indeed as we have had in northern prisons, eight in a cell designed for four, that the tension among prisoners rises", he told Perthnow.

The November 18 Australian said 56% of adults imprisoned in WA in the past year were for minor offences; 34% were fine defaulters. Forty per cent of WA prisoners are Aboriginal.

National Indigenous Times editor Chris Graham wrote on July 9 that Indigenous males in WA were imprisoned eight times the rate of black males in South Africa during Apartheid.

The WA parliament is now debating a proposed Criminal Investigation Act, which will allow police to search people without suspicion of a crime. The government has motivated the laws on the grounds of making Northbridge — a suburb where Aboriginal young people gather together — more "family friendly".

Law Society vice president Hylton Quail told the November 17 Australian: "The effect of the laws will be to discriminate against those people, particularly Aboriginal youths, who the government has said they are clearly targeted at, in terms of their reference to Northbridge."

WA Premier Colin Barnett told ABC radio on November 18 that he felt the chocolate frog case was "unfortunate" — because it had embarrassed the police.

However, he did not show any concern for the 12-year-old at the centre of the case. He even told the ABC the boy had a criminal history. In fact, he has no criminal record and had never faced any criminal charges.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.