By Ashleigh Piles
It is no secret Indigenous people in Australia experience much higher rates of contact with the justice system than white Australians.
However, a recent Australian Bureau of Statistics study indicates Indigenous offenders tend to receive prison terms 28 per cent shorter than their non-Indigenous counterparts for almost all crimes.
An Indigenous Australian charged with illicit drug use is likely to receive a 40-month sentence where a non-Indigenous person will receive an average sentence of 70 months.
Is our justice system over representing the Indigenous community or are we still trying to apologise for histories treatment of our Aborigines?
Mr Andrew Baker, former Legal Studies teacher and principal says the nation has moved past the injustices.
“I don’t think we feel sorry for them anymore but I do believe we sympathise with their circumstances and charge accordingly,” he said.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Kourakis explained why sentencing in most criminal cases might appear inconsistent.
“…They [judges] try and maintain consistency but consistency does not mean the very same sentence or penalty in every case.
“There is a whole range of circumstances around the commission of crime that are taken into account [when sentencing] and accounts for the variation,” he said.
The range of charges is determined by a combination of the defendant’s past criminal history, rehabilitation attempts, education and social opportunities.
Judges are also allowed to consider other personal factors in order to reduce an individual’s sentence.
This is where an offender’s Indigeneity may appear to award them a lenient sentence.
Chief Justice Kourakis said, “It is important to remember that even the reasons why a person steals or acts violently may differ…”
“Some offenders might be intellectually challenged – others might not have received education or social opportunities that others have received.
“Others, again might be drug addicted and others might have embarked already on courses of rehabilitation,” he said.
Ultimately, a person’s racial background plays little role in determining a lesser sentence for a crime.
For many years the media have been known to broadcast Aboriginal affairs with a sense of negativity.
This includes airing the perception that Indigenous offenders are more likely to get off with lenient sentences than other Australians.
Chief Justice Kourakis said the media report on crime in ways that create controversial conversations.
“It is particularly good [for the media] if there are two camps who take opposing views,” he said.
The media fuel debate by choosing to display the cases where a person of race has been awarded a lenient sentence for their crime – adding to the overrepresentation of the Indigenous community.
“That’s the stock and the trade of the media but not always very helpful in informing the community,” Chief Justice Kourakis said.
The problem with over representation of Indigenous people in Australia is that it’s more severe among youths.
The ABS revealed in June last year that over two thousand Indigenous prisoners are under the age of 24.
A statistic the Youth Court is all too desperate to change.
Chief Justice Kourakis said the Youth Court in South Australia is about to embark on a program of a specialist Aboriginal court for Aboriginal youth.
“…It will focus on promoting educational opportunities and involvement and work opportunities for Indigenous offenders, particularly trying to tackle truancy…
“But that is in its early stages of development,” he said.
He also said programs such as Nunga courts – which allow Indigenous Elders to take part in sentencing – is an example of how the courts are working towards supporting Indigenous youths.
“Involvement of Elders is really important because it adds to the respect they have in the community and gives them a sense of responsibility…” Chief Justice Kourakis said.
Image Source: NIT