• Amnesty International is warning against a new law, passed in WA, that could cause more harm than good when it comes to Indigenous youth at risk of offending. (SBS)Source: SBS
Amnesty International has warned new laws to combat home invasion and aggravated burglary in Western Australia will see more young people incarcerated.
By
Yasmin Noone

16 Sep 2015 - 4:58 PM  UPDATED 17 Sep 2015 - 3:32 PM

More Indigenous youth could end up behind bars in Western Australia as a result of new laws introducing additional mandatory sentences for 16-and 17-year-olds found guilty of non-violent home invasion and burglary, Amnesty International has warned.

The Criminal Law Amendment (Home Burglary and Other Offences) Bill 2014, which passed in the Western Australian Legislative Assembly on Tuesday and will become law in November, aims to extend the state’s mandatory sentencing regime.

Amnesty International Australia’s Indigenous rights manager Tammy Solonec raised concern about the changes in a press release on Wednesday, saying it would result in a “disastrous impact on Indigenous young people” in the state's prison population.

"We are concerned that these laws will have unintended consequences, particularly for young people," said Ms Solonec.

Western Australia Premier Colin Barnett said passing the bill in both houses of parliament should be seen as a political triumph, as it is proof that his government had been tough on crime.

"These tough new laws are about the victims of home burglary and home invasions," Mr Barnett said.

"They ensure that the people who break into homes and terrorise and attack innocent people get the punishment they deserve.

"The Liberal National Government promised West Australians that we would be tough on crime and we have delivered on that commitment today.

According to an Amnesty International report released earlier this year, Aboriginal children in Western Australia are 53 times more likely to be jailed than their non-Indigenous peers.

The report also found that Aboriginal young people account for 78.3 percent of all young people incarcerated throughout the country in 2013-14, despite the fact that this demographic is only 6 percent of the population.

"WA already has the appalling distinction of having the highest rate of Indigenous youth in detention in Australia," said Ms Solonec.

"These laws will only add to that terrible distinction.

"…Tragically, young people’s lives will be irrevocably changed for the worse with the passing of these mandatory sentencing laws."

She said the WA government could have instead invested the additional $93 million to keep youth in detention and jails into diversionary and preventative programs that addressed "the underlying causes of crimes including poverty, trauma and substance abuse".  

"…Tragically, young people’s lives will be irrevocably changed for the worse with the passing of these mandatory sentencing laws."

The legislation also mandated minimum jail terms of 75 per cent of the maximum sentence for an adult offender who committed serious physical or sexual assault during a home burglary.

This means:

  • An offender who breaks into a house and rapes someone will face a minimum of 15 years jail.
  • An offender who breaks into a house and physically assaults someone causing serious harm will face a minimum of seven years, six months jail.
  • An offender who breaks into a house and indecently assaults someone will face a minimum of five years, three months jail.

WA Police Minister Liza Harvey released a statement about the changes, saying that these "three-strike rules" would be tightened to stop offenders being able to have all their offences bundled together as one strike.

"Under the new laws, if an offender has committed three burglaries, on three days that is three strikes and they're going to jail," Ms Harvey said.

"We know that the majority of home invasions are committed by prolific offenders. To get these offenders off the streets and into a prison cell will help burglary rates decrease."

But Amnesty International's Ms Solonec said she believed mandatory sentencing was not the answer to keeping communities safe because it does not address the underlying causes that lead to criminal behaviour.

"These laws also fly in the face of international law breaching the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which provides that detention for young people should only be a last resort and for the shortest possible time."

More than 25,000 of Amnesty International's supporters wrote letters, emails, made phone calls and held meetings with representatives of the WA Government calling for the bill to be withdrawn or amended so that it did not apply to children.

Amnesty was also part of a group of 12 human rights, Indigenous and community groups that wrote an open letter to the government opposing the bill in March.

“These laws also fly in the face of international law breaching the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which provides that detention for young people should only be a last resort and for the shortest possible time.”

"The government has justified this bill on the grounds that it will increase community safety," the letter reads.

"But evidence shows that mandatory sentencing does not reduce offending rates.

"By increasing the number of young offenders in detention the bill will perversely result in increased offending behaviour. Serious and violent offences committed in the course of an aggravated home burglary already carry extremely heavy penalties, and we do not down play the seriousness of these offences.

"However the government has provided no evidence that existing sentences given to 16- and 17-year-olds are inadequate."

Ms Solonec said rather than working to find a solution, the WA government has taken the "backward step of entrenching a harsh and punitive approach". 

"Ironically, it will lead to increased offending behaviour - because we know the more young people that end up incarcerated the more likely they are to reoffend."

RELATED STORY:
Amnesty Int'l calls govt to abandon mandatory sentencing laws plan
As Parliament resumes in Western Australia this week, human rights advocacy group Amnesty International has put out a call for its supporters to pressure the state government to abandon its plan for harsher mandatory sentencing laws.

According to the Koori Mail, around 80 percent of jailed Aboriginal male juveniles in WA have committed previous offences, while around 64 per cent of Aboriginal female juveniles are reconvicted.

"WA desperately needs politicians to show real leadership to improve community safety and reduce the appalling rates of Indigenous incarceration," she said.

The bill is currently awaiting assent.