Mandatory sentencing push condemned

The Western Australian Liberal government and sections of the corporate media have responded to the March 12 acquittal of three people charged with assaulting police, by mounting a populist campaign for mandatory sentencing of people convicted of assaulting police.

This campaign included advertising for, and favourable coverage of, a March 18 rally, which reportedly attracted several thousand police, other emergency workers and "members of the public".

A mobile phone video of one of the accused head-butting a police officer has been widely played on television news and is available on media websites. This video appears to portray an unprovoked assault from behind, but it covers only a small part of the events in question.

The alleged attackers — two brothers and their father — ran a defence argument that their actions constituted legitimate self-defence. The fact that this defence was successful and the three were acquitted implies the cops were very violent towards the three men.

The March 18 Sydney Morning Herald reported that the government's bill to legislate the mandatory sentences passed the lower house on that day. The bill had originally included only police, but has been broadened to include ambulance officers and prison and transit guards. It has not yet passed through the upper house.

Socialist Alliance WA convenor Sam Wainwright told Green Left Weekly there were three main problems with the "disgusting" mandatory sentencing laws being advanced by the government.

"Firstly, an assault against a cop is treated as more serious than an assault against any other citizen", Wainwright said. "Why should cops have a privileged position above other occupations and other citizens?"

The Labor opposition — while joining the government's right-wing law-and-order push — tried to move amendments to extend the laws to other occupations such as nurses and firefighters, and to allow judges more flexibility in sentencing. The government rejected these amendments.

"Secondly", Wainwright said, "mandatory sentencing is itself an attack on civil liberties and will simply result in longer sentences — not a reduction in the crime rate.

"Thirdly, had these laws been in place it would have made absolutely no difference to the outcome. The point is that the three people in question were acquitted; they are not guilty."

Instead of attacking "democratic rights such as the jury system," he said, the government should be trying to "tackle the causes of violence in society; poverty and dis-empowerment foremost among them".