When 15-year-old Johnno Wurramarrba was sentenced to 28 days in a juvenile detention center last February, no one could have known it would end in tragedy.
The young Australian Aborigine's crime seemed benign but the jail term harsh - he'd stolen a pack of felt-tip pens and some pencils. But if everything had gone as intended by authorities, the mandatory month in jail for his second property crime as a juvenile would have taught him a lesson. At the end of it, he would be sent home a wiser soul to Groote Eylandt, the remote island community off Australia's north coast where he lived.
Instead though, he hung himself with a bedsheet, depressed at being torn from his family. And in so doing he became a tragic victim, some claim now, of a draconian mandatory sentencing law that critics say discriminates against young Aboriginal men.
Since Johnno's February suicide, a vigorous nationwide debate has erupted over the laws now in place in two states, Western Australia and the Northern Territory.
There have been calls for them to be repealed and Prime Minister John Howard has said he opposes the laws. But to date Mr. Howard has avoided intervening out of respect for the states' right to pass their own laws, although he could constitutionally step in.
In recent weeks the debate has also led to pressure on Howard from within his own party to intervene and prompted criticism for his government's inaction from a United Nations committee and other human rights groups.
The debate in Australia parallels one going on in the US as more and more states introduce so-called three-strikes-and-you're-out laws that can in many cases be harsher than their Australian equivalents. The three-strikes law in California, for instance, calls for a life sentence for third-time offenders. In the Northern Territory, adults found guilty of a third property crime face a year in prison.
As in the US, much of the criticism of the laws in Australia has been prompted by reports of petty thieves getting severe sentences for stealing little more than a pack of cookies or a few pens.
Politicians in both Western Australia and the Northern Territory have defended the laws as necessary. Polls show a majority of voters echo the support.
Local support for sentencing laws
But critics claim that while the laws may be popular with white voters, they discriminate against the states' Aboriginal populations and exacerbate the already-high incarceration rate for Aborigines. Both the Northern Territory and Western Australia have seen their prison populations grow since the mandatory sentencing laws were introduced.
There is a great disparity in both states in the rate at which Aborigines are jailed compared with the population as a whole. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, for instance, the incarceration rate for the general population in Western Australia is 211.6 people per 100,000 population, while for the indigenous population it is 2,972 per 100,000 people, more than 14 times that of the rest of the population.
For Australia's 18.5 million total population - 400,000 of which are Aborigines - the rate of incarceration is just 144 per 100,000.
"The fundamental nature of something like mandatory sentencing within the legal framework is totally wrong," says Aboriginal leader Peter Yu, head of the influential Kimberley Land Council in Western Australia. "It is fundamentally directed at the indigenous youth. That's only going to compound the situation."
Crimes in Aboriginal communities lead to arrests far more than those in white communities, partly because most Aboriginal communities are small and tightly knit, and everybody seems to know what's going on.
According to Maria Ceresa, executive officer for the Law Society of the Northern Territory, which represents the state's lawyers and has been lobbying for the mandatory sentencing laws' repeal, Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory have arrest rates of almost 100 percent for crimes. The white suburbs of the state's capital, Darwin, have a "clear up" rate of just 14 percent.
It's facts like those that last month led the UN's Geneva-based Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) to express its "grave concern" over what it called a "discriminatory approach" to law enforcement in Western Australia and the Northern Territory.
The condemnation prompted an angry reaction from Australia's conservative government that has led to another chapter in the debate. Foreign Minister Alexander Downer called the criticism a "polemical attack" on the government and accused the committee of meddling in domestic politics. He also announced a review of Australia's involvement with UN committees like CERD, questioning their professionalism.
That has raised concerns among human rights groups that Australia's handling of its own mandatory sentencing debacle could have repercussions elsewhere. "Australia has been one country that has been responsible for advancing the cause of human rights," says Damien Spry, a spokesman for Amnesty International. "But recently it seems to be undoing all its good work." The criticism "certainly does make it easier for other countries to use a similar method now that Australia has," Mr. Spry says. "It's a worrying international trend that we would hope Australia would try to arrest, or prevent."
In fact, Australia's attack on the UN committee system prompted the potentially embarrassing admission over the weekend that a Chinese diplomat had spent part of a meeting with Australian counterparts last week commiserating over the two countries' woes with the UN over human rights. China is now fighting a US-sponsored resolution before the UN Human Rights Commission criticizing its human rights record.
"Our response," said an Australian foreign-affairs spokesman Sunday, "was that our concerns with the UN system were very different than those of the Chinese."
There are signs something may be done soon to change the mandatory sentencing laws.
The prime minister is scheduled to meet with Denis Burke, the Northern Territory's chief minister this week, and Mr. Burke signaled last week that a compromise may be achieved if the federal government is willing to increase its funding of diversionary programs in the state. "I'm certainly open to cooperation with the prime minister and the federal government," he told a radio interviewer during a trade visit to China.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society