Unfair mandatory sentencing laws

Concerns have arisen about a plan to extend mandatory sentencing under Western Australia’s controversial ‘three strikes’ laws.

The ‘three strikes’ law will apply to the cases where a mandatory minimum one-year sentence will be given to young people for home burglaries, and for serious and violent offences that occur when a burglary is committed by a person of any age. If young offenders have a prior record, this will be taken into account, even if they have admitted guilt and participated in rehabilitation programs. Mandatory minimum sentencing will prevent judges from taking into account extenuating circumstances when handing down a sentence.

If passed, however, the legislation will put pressure on already overcrowded prisons. According to the WA Prison Officers’ Union the state’s jails are already holding 1200 more inmates than they’re meant to. According to state government estimates, the proposed legislation, currently before parliament, would result in a further 260 adults and 60 children being imprisoned.

Union Secretary John Welch says prison overcrowding is due to “a failure of planning and a failure of good policy.” He says overcrowding puts staff and prisoners at risk, and new jails are needed, instead of new legislations, which “are not going to deal with the crisis we have.”

At the overcrowded Bandyup Women’s Prison, inmates are sleeping on mattresses on the floor, some with a toilet next to their head.  Mr Welch is concerned about the stress more prisoners will have on an already stretched system, as “increased tension and pressures” will lead to assaults on prisoners and staff.

Professor Harry Blagg, Associate Dean of research at the University of Western Australia’s law school says the punishment is “appalling” and “hypocritical”. The Aboriginal Legal Service of WA, Law Society of WA and Amnesty International all oppose the law and say it will disproportionately affect Indigenous people.

“I find it utterly distressing that this is what we have come to,” Mr Blagg says. “A lot of these kids [Indigenous Australians] are on the foetal alcohol syndrome spectrum, their ability to make judgments is significantly impaired.”

Read more at ABC.

Opinion: Australia’s justice problem

When talking about harsher sentencing legislation for offenders, there’s no clearer, or more current, case to discuss than that of murderer and rapist Adrian Bayley. He had served only 11 years in prison for rape and the attempted rapes of eight women, but was free to walk the streets of Brunswick in September last year, choosing to end the life of ABC employee Jill Meagher in the most horrific way imaginable for any woman.

The mandatory sentencing and ‘three strikes’ law, which mainly targets under aged offenders committing petty crimes, seems nonsensical. It’s baffling to think that in one state in Australia, kids can be imprisoned at the snap of someone’s fingers, while in another serious repeat-offenders, such as Adrian Bayley and Sean Christian Price (who murdered Melbourne teenager Masa Vukotic in broad daylight in March), can walk free.

The Australian legal system is drenched in privileged-based hypocrisy. It’s no coincidence that Bayley and Price, murderers with a rap-sheet a mile long of other violent offences, are middle class while males. Consider also that in 2013–14, despite only making up around six per cent of the population, disadvantaged Indigenous Australians made up 78.3 per cent of all young people in detention in WA.

I’m sure we’ll all have an opinion about how our unfair legal system can be fixed. One way could be for all states to adopt the same sentencing legislation across the board. Another might be to find a way to funnel more money into the overburdened parole and prison systems. Certainly, we know that preventing a situation from occurring in the first place is the best way to avoid having to find a fix. And focusing individual education and mental health can do that.

What can Australia do to ensure its legal system upholds justice properly and is fair across the board? Does Australia have a justice problem or is the issue about something else entirely?

Written by Amelia Theodorakis

A writer and communications specialist with eight years’ in startups, SMEs, not-for-profits and corporates. Interests and expertise in gender studies, history, finance, banking, human interest, literature and poetry.

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