EXCLUSIVE: What’s it like to be an Indigenous person caught up in Australia’s justice system where it’s 16 times more likely you will be imprisoned than a white fella? True Crime News Weekly correspondent Gary Johnston takes a look at just another day in the life of Karratha Magistrates Court.
For the lawyers, clerks and ancillary staff going about their business, it’s just another day at the Karratha Magistrates Court. For the people massing around the entrance to this unprepossessing single storey building in Western Australia’s Pilbara region, however, the day has a much more palpable significance. For those whose interest in proceedings is personal rather than remuneration based, drawing deeply on cigarettes prior to stepping through the glass fronted doors, witnesses, accused and their families, this day is somewhat less than run-of-the-mill. Their fate is to await justice, though the anxious looks, nervous gestures and dearth of conversation do not suggest an atmosphere of optimism or positivity. Most faces, in fact, seem to display a distinct impression of forlorn inevitability.
In this city of 16,000 souls, officially established in 1968 and once a major hub for the iron ore, petroleum and natural gas industries, the court is one of the few local entities that continues to thrive, a five day a week operation that has effortlessly survived the economic downtown which has come within a whisker of rendering Karratha – the name means ‘Good Country’ in the local Aboriginal dialect – a ghost town.
Crime, in Karratha, in Western Australia as a whole, is big business. Justice, on the other hand, for some at least, seems to be in somewhat shorter supply
Bucking the trend exhibited in almost every other Australian state where, largely unreported by the mainstream media, the crime rate is actually falling, Western Australia has seen an overall rise of 5% in the last year. Much of this increase is in relation to matters of ‘Assault’, up 13%, the highest annual increase for this offence nationally. Also on the rise are figures for offenders with a principal offence of ‘Fraud/deception’, up 8%, an increase almost completely subsumed by ‘Obtain benefit by deception’, up 14% and clearly a direct consequence of increased unemployment and associated desperation.
For Ben however, no stranger to the court process, the proceedings today represent a significant shift. Nearly every other time he’s walked through the doors, it’s been as a defendant and invariably, his subsequent exit has been played out around the back, with him in handcuffs, accompanied by officers from the Department of Corrections.
Today, Ben expects things will be different, because, this time, Ben is a victim, not a perpetrator.
The criminal justice system in Australia is a complicated beast. Despite the constitutionally accepted notion that the law must be applied equally and fairly, there is compelling evidence that a contrary reality exists. And nowhere does it scream foul than in statistics relating to Aboriginal offenders.
Indigenous people, as almost everybody knows, but few want to talk about, are massively over-represented in the criminal justice system of Australia. They represent only 3% of the total population, yet more than 28% of Australia’s prison population are Aboriginal. And here, in Western Australia, the figures are even more stark. Despite comprising 3% of inhabitants, they represent 43% of prisoners. As an Aboriginal adult in the Wildflower State, you are 16 times more likely to be incarcerated than your white counterpart. Yes, you read that correctly – sixteen times.
Ironically, for Ben, stubbing out yet another last cigarette, he fully expects those unbalanced figures to work in his favour today.
Conceding he ‘might have done the wrong thing’, Ben was in bed with his partner, in flagrant breach of an Aggravated Violence Order she’d taken out against him, when a member of her family entered the house and struck Ben full force in the face with a ball-peen hammer. Whilst he acknowledges his own conduct was – and in the past has frequently been – criminal, family violence and numerous public order offences telling its undeniable narrative, he nevertheless considers that, this time at least, he was the person wronged.
His partner invited him into the house, he claims, as she had numerous times before, despite a relationship with an acknowledged and protracted history of dysfunction and abuse. It’s complicated, Ben says, and despite his self-acknowledged complicity, it’s hard to disagree.
Ben expects justice. As his right. A clear, equitable indication from the court that no one has the right to summarily play judge, jury and near executioner other than the white fella in the suit and tie sitting up there in the magistrates chair. After all, isn’t that how the system is supposed to work?
Adjusting the sunnies he wears to hide the skull depression damage that means his eyesight is permanently impaired, Ben walks into the court, alone. Taking this action and providing personal evidence hasn’t been easy. Separated from his family, Ben is not a Karratha native, a fact which brings its own problems generally, multiplied to the nth degree when pressing charges against an in-law, but still one of his own, a brother, his kin.
He’s determined though. He knows what happened to him isn’t right, a point of view his mum, a highly respected women of the Kalaako “People of Fire” tribe from the Kalgoorlie region, has inculcated in him through numerous late night phone calls. Regardless of the circumstances, as an Indigenous person, as an Australian, Ben expects – deserves – real, as opposed to rough justice.
What transpires, however, exceeds his expectations. And not in a good way.
Ben is currently incarcerated. He doesn’t know what happened to his case. No one told him. His mum only knows, through a contact in the victim support office, that the matter has been ‘discontinued’.
It’s unclear what this means. No-one in the court is saying anything more. Ben was arrested on an outstanding warrant and will not be released until late April. His day, which began as a victim and a witness, ended with him, once again, a prisoner.
It’s complicated and, not surprisingly, neither he, his mum or the community, don’t quite understand.
What is uncomplicated however, what’s beyond doubt, is the fact that the lofty ideals of justice, enshrined in the Australian constitution, that the law must be accessible, equitable and transparent, do not wholly apply to Indigenous people.
Ben’s mum view is more succinct. ‘Nobody cares’, she says. ‘When it comes to justice, it’s like we’re invisible’.
There’s a french phrase which goes – ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose’ – the more things change, the more they stay the same.
It’s an Australian disgrace, that, for Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander people in Australia today, the epigram of Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr is a sickening reminder of our lack of progress, our national ignominy.
Just another day in Karratha Magistrates’s Court.
And, tragically, shamefully, in courts, all over this ‘lucky’ country.