Broken system

Saturday, 18th March, 2017

By Craig Brealey

A District Court judge has asked lawyers to look at what they can do to stop so many young Aboriginal people ending up in the criminal justice system.

Judge Paul Lakatos made his plea to “enlightened” lawyers while hearing the case of a 20-year-old man from Wilcannia who had been jailed for breaking into a house in Cornish Street and stealing more than $13,000 worth of jewellery.

He had also smashed a window with a rock in Creedon Street and failed to appear in court.

Leonard Swan, from Wilcannia, was appealing against his conviction and the severity of his 12-month full-time jail sentence.

His lawyer, Tom Saunders from the Aboriginal Legal Service, said the sentence was “slightly too big” and appeared to have been imposed on the principle of general deterrence.

“But my client is not a good vehicle for that principle to be employed,” Mr Saunders said.

This was because his problems were mainly those specific to deprived Aboriginal communities, he said.

Swan was invited to give evidence and told the judge that he was raised among drunkenness and violence, that his mother had killed his father and that he was fostered out when he was 13 years old.

He had also been in trouble with the law since he was a child.

Judge Lakatos told Mr Saunders that he was very well aware of such stories that all originated from the chronic unemployment, alcoholism, drug use and boredom that is rife is many Aboriginal towns.

“The real problem that most enlightened lawyers might address is the problem of what keeps bringing them to court,” the judge told Mr Saunders.

“If offences continue to be committed, other factors come into play such as protecting the community and the like.

“The community says ‘I want my windows and my house protected.

“There is very little a court can do but act in a legal and principled fashion.”

But this was not much more than applying “band aids”, he said.

“Unless there is a will to change, we can do what we like but he’ll be back here again. This is a problem with the legal system generally.”

Judge Lakatos asked Mr Saunders if there were any programs in place whereby “elders or others see what is happening and take steps to head him off at the pass, so to speak, before the police and courts get involved. 

“Is there some system to identify young men or women who are at risk?”

Mr Saunders replied that most of the government funding for such programs was spent on the east coast. These programs were not available in the outback.

The Far West, he said, was “the forgotten region”.

“One of the frustrations is that we deal not just with the crime and the legal work but manage social services, housing - all sorts of things.”

The funding was not enough to deal with the size of the problem, he said.

However, a rehabilitation service for Aboriginal people, called Wimpatja  Health, situated on a station about 80 kilometres from Wentworth, was having some success, Mr Saunders said, to the extent that the Probation and Parole Service was now using it.

Judge Lakatos agreed to reduce Swan’s full-time prison term from 12 months to eight and recommended that he seek a place in Wimpatja while he serves his 10 months on parole.

The appeal against his conviction for property damage was dismissed but the one against failing to appear was allowed with the judge changing the prison term to a nine-month bond.

An order for Swan to pay $13,507 compensation to the 61-year-old woman from whom he stole the jewellery still stands, the judge said.

The jewellery held not only financial but sentimental value to the woman, the judge said.