The Northern Territory government passed new mandatory sentencing laws on February 14 that will increase the minimum time offenders spend in prison and restrict judges’ right to suspend sentences for certain crimes.
NT justice minister John Elferink told AAP on February 14: "These new mandatory minimum sentences correct the failed attempt by the former Labor government to be tough on crime."
The laws are part of the newly elected Country Liberal Party’s “Crackdown on Crime” campaign that it promised during the August 25 election last year. Since coming to power, the CLP has cut funding to diversion programs such as the Drug and Alcohol Court and SMART court, which both provided alternatives to jail.
Under the new laws, everyone convicted of a violent offence would serve a mandatory three months in prison for a first offence and repeat offenders would serve a minimum of 12 months in prison.
The laws also create new guidelines that mandate a three-month sentence for anyone who harms someone who is at work.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the NT has the highest rate of incarceration in Australia. Eight hundred and twenty-six adults are imprisoned per every 100,000 people in the NT. The next highest is WA with only 267 per 100,000.
The NT also has the highest rate of Aboriginal incarceration. Making up a third of the overall NT population, Aboriginal people make up 83% of the prison population — more than the rate at which South Africa imprisoned its Black population during apartheid.
But the CLP’s Aboriginal MP Bess Price, who represents the seat of Stuart, has said prison was “good” for Aboriginal people.
"While they are being imprisoned, they don't get to drink, they don't get into trouble, they are fed three times a day," she told ABC online on February 15.
"They are in there with their family members. They sleep in their language groups and they all come out of prison much healthier."
Northern Australian Aboriginal Justice Association (NAAJA) principal legal officer Jonathon Hunyor disagreed with Price’s conclusions. "We think that Bess Price is right when she identifies the problem," he told ABC online.
"For some people, the conditions are very bad but the solution isn't sending people to prison. The millions of dollars we spend on locking people up, we should be spending on improving the lives of Aboriginal people."
Lawyers’ groups, such as the NAAJA, and retiring Justice Dean Mildren condemned the new laws. Mildren described them as a “cancer”.
On November 15, Russell Goldflam, president of the Criminal Lawyers Association of the NT, said: “The Government claims these changes are necessary for deterrence and retribution, but the evidence is clear: mandatory sentencing does not deter people from offending.
“While our notorious and discredited mandatory sentencing laws for property offences were in force in the 1990s, property offending actually went up. As for retribution, our courts already impose the toughest sentences in the country for violent offending.”