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Issue Number 32 - April 2000

Mandatory Sentencing

Mandatory Sentencing has been the focus of public debate since the death of a 15 year old Aboriginal boy in Darwin. While some changes have been made recently, the following extract from the Central Australian Justice Coalition in Alice Springs outlines how mandatory sentencing in the Northern Territory operated and how ineffective it is:


Mandatory sentencing started in March 1997

- It forces Magistrates and Judges to lock up people who have committed property offences, even trivial ones, without being able to take into account what happened and why.

- It's not three strikes and you are in. It's one strike and you're in.

- Children are detained on their second offence.

- Adults are jailed on their first offence.

Does it reduce crime?

- No. Since mandatory sentencing started, crime rates have risen.

- In 1998/99 in Darwin unlawful entry offences rose by 48% and property damage by 35%.

- In Alice Springs unlawful entry offences and property damage both rose by 21%.

- 87% of home invaders in Darwin have not even been caught.

Our homes and properties are not safer.

Mandatory Sentencing is expensive - to lock up one person for a year costs more than it does for a police officer, welfare worker, health worker or teacher to be employed.

There are other things that work, e.g. Diversionary Programs and National Crime Prevention Strategies.

Mandatory Sentencing undermines these from working.

Children, Women, Aboriginal People and People with Disabilities:

- The number of children in detention has risen by 145% since mandatory sentencing started.

- The number of women in jail has risen by 552% since mandatory sentencing started.

- The number of Indigenous women in jail increased by 586%.

- Indigenous people make up 77% of the prison population in the Northern Territory.

- If someone has a mental illness or a disability that contributes to their crime, judges and magistrates cannot take this into account. More people with these disabilities will go to jail.

What people go to jail for:

- receiving 1 bottle of spring water - cost $1.00

- receiving 2 litres of petrol - cost $2.00

- stealing 2 cartons of eggs - cost $8.00

- unlawful entry and stealing petrol - cost $2.00

We can help stop people from doing these sorts of crimes by putting money into programs that help lots of people, not by just jailing one person.

Victims are entitled to:

- see the offender properly punished

- have the offender caught

- proper acknowledgment of what they have suffered

- restitution for their loss

- help and support.

Mandatory Sentencing does none of these.


A joint project of the
Catholic Justice &
Peace Commission and
Catholic Prison Ministry

Mandatory sentencing is based on a philosophy of punitive justice. Another approach is that of restorative justice. Restorative justice is not a system, but a set of principles and values that can be applied to situations to determine how best to respond to them. These are spelled out in the document, Broken Laws or Broken People, a joint project of the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission (Brisbane) and Catholic Prison Ministry. The principles of restorative justice are: 

1. The victim is a central part of the process.

2. Justice requires offenders to accept responsibility for their actions.

3. The restoration of harm and the reparation of relationships is the goal of restorative justice.

4. Restorative justice focuses on the crime and its consequences rather than the person who committed it.

5. Crime occurs between people.

Mandatory sentencing is concerned only with the one who commits the crime, and does not attend to the restoration of harm and/or of relationships and focuses on punishment rather than on healing the effects of the crime.

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