No degree of persecution complex on the part of the Northern Territory Chief Minister, Mr. Denis Burke, can change the fact that the death of a 15-year old Aboriginal, Johnno Warramarrba, is a result of the territory s draconian sentencing laws. People will rub their hands with glee and say Burke s got blood on his hands because of mandatory sentencing, Mr. Burke said. It was the lowest of the low to suggest that Mr. Warramarrba had died because of mandatory sentencing, he complained.
Mr. Burke is wrong on both counts. No one is rubbing their hands over the death of the youth, who did not have enough command of the English language to understand the system that jailed him, whose parents were dead and whose guardian, his grandmother, was ill in hospital; and the tragedy has everything to do with laws that put people in jail for trivial offences in this case the theft of $90 worth of pens, pencils and paint. If it were not for mandatory sentencing, which allows magistrates and judges no discretion, it is most unlikely that this boy would have been in prison. Since it introduced mandatory sentencing laws which are also in force in Western Australia the NT government has consistently ignored criticisms by human rights groups that the laws are too inflexible, unnecessarily harsh and racially discriminatory. Although the Federal Government has the power to veto territory laws, the Prime Minister, Mr.
Howard, has so far refused to intervene in order to overturn them. If any good at all can come from such a tragedy, it might be that the outrage of this boy s death could force a change of heart. The laws put Australia in breach of two United Nations conventions. The nation s judges, legal organisations and child welfare groups are urging the Federal Government to overturn the laws. The Government should intervene without delay. It should also look at whether its obligation to international human rights conventions allow it to use its external affairs powers to challenge the laws in WA as well.
Johnno Warramarrba is the first person to die under mandatory sentencing and the danger is that because Aboriginal people are affected so disproportionately he will not be the last. There is no evidence that these laws have the desired effect of reducing the crime rate. Even if the did, there is no place for them in any country that purports to have a humane and civil juvenile system. The NT Law Society president, Mr. Jon Tippett, described the death of this boy as a day of shame for all territorials. It is also, by extension, a day of shame for all Australians.
The rest of the world is already looking askance at us because of these laws, but even more important is the way we see ourselves. They must be overturned.