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Issue #1627      February 19, 2014

Fears over “one-punch” laws

Legal organisations in NSW are concerned that the much-publicised new “one-punch” laws will mean more Aboriginal people go to jail. The O’Farrell government recently introduced the first suite of new legislation that is supposed to deal with “coward-punch” incidents, but also includes huge increases in on-the-spot fines for offensive language, failure to comply with “move-on” directions by police and offensive behaviour.

The legislation was supported by the Labor opposition but opposed by the Greens, in the wake of a few highly-publicised violent incidents in Kings Cross and George Street in central Sydney. The government is also planning to introduce mandatory minimum sentences for assaulting police and assault occasioning bodily harm.

NSW ACT Aboriginal Legal Service (ALS) chief legal officer John McKenzie told the Koori Mail newspaper that based on the numbers of Aboriginal clients it represents, the new laws would mean 1,000 more Aboriginal people in jail each year in NSW.

“These mandatory minimum sentences really concern us, because they put a lot of Aboriginal people in jeopardy,” he said. “Anyone with any understanding of the history of assault police and Aboriginal people can just imagine what’s going to happen here.

“People can be charged with assaulting police without any physical contact; for example, someone pretty drunk who takes a swing at an officer that’s wildly misdirected and doesn’t even go close to connecting.

“With a minimum two years in jail this has got the potential to lock up huge cohorts of Aboriginal people, and really increase frictions on the street between police and community members.”

A spokesperson for NSW Indigenous Affairs Minister Victor Dominello said the government had committed to conducting a review of the amendments to the NSW Crimes Act within three years. “At that time we will be in better position to assess their impact,” he said.

“Through OCHRE, the NSW government plan for Aboriginal affairs, we are improving opportunities for Aboriginal young people through initiatives which help them to build pride in their identity and culture, support Aboriginal students to stay in school and get fulfilling and sustainable jobs.

“OCHRE aims to support strong Aboriginal communities, deter criminal behaviour and keep Aboriginal young people out of juvenile detention.”

The fine for failure to comply with a “move-on” direction by police has increased from $200 to $1,100, and for offensive language from $150 to $500.

In NSW, failure to pay a fine attracts penalty fees and the State Debt Recovery Office can cancel driver’s licences and car registration after a three-month period.

“In remote and regional areas there are not always good relations between police and Aboriginal communities and, unfortunately, these fines are handed out fairly often to Aboriginal people, which will indirectly lead to a greater number of Aboriginal people in prison,” Mr McKenzie said. “Say you get an $1,100 fine, which you can’t pay because of poverty, within 12 months that becomes $2,000, and you have your licence suspended for non-payment.

“In regional areas where there is no viable public transport to get to a doctor, hospital, a job, or a Centrelink interview, unfortunately the reality leads many Aboriginal people to continue driving and sooner or later they get picked up and sent to jail for driving while disqualified.

“We estimate at the moment approximately 30 percent of the adult prison population is there for driving offences.”

The spokesperson for Mr Dominello said that while the penalties had increased, Work and Development Orders (WDO), which allow people to clear fines through unpaid work, educational courses or treatment, would continue.

“People experiencing homelessness, financial hardship, and/or serious addictions to drugs and alcohol can apply for a WDO with the support of an approved organisation or health practitioner,” he said.

“These are made by the State Debt Recovery Office, and Legal Aid NSW works with eligible Aboriginal people to ensure they are aware of the benefits of WDOs.”

Mr McKenzie said Aboriginal people in NSW already made up 25 percent of the prison population. “But that doesn’t make one big headline like eight years for one punch,” he said. “I understand the public outrage about people dying. The reality is tragic, but it is very rare.

“But to make laws on the basis that ‘this cleans the streets up’, because of issues in Kings Cross and George Street, does not give a proper basis for laws in this state, and Aboriginal people in the bush will wear the detrimental effects.”

The NSW Bar Association, Law Society and former Director of Public Prosecutions Nicholas Cowdery have all condemned mandatory sentencing as non-effective as a deterrent and is a recipe for injustice.

Koori Mail

Next article – Napthine’s glass jaw brings on an iron fist

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