By Gerry Georgatos – A 20-year-old impoverished woman was hauled before a Western Australian Court today for being hungry and for trying to walk out from a Salvo Op Shop with a few donated hand-me downs. The Western Australian Police disgraced themselves in charging her. The Judicial system humiliated itself in failing to throw out the case and worse, in fining her.

The young woman does it tough, needs support but got stitched with more than $1000 in fines. Where’s the so-called diversionary alternatives instead of being dragged to Court? Where’s the psychosocial support? Where’s the compassion, the understanding?

Her crimes?

“Stealing” $9.40 worth of food from Coles.

“Stealing” $15 worth of donated second-hand clothes from a Salvation Army Op Shop. Shame on the Salvos for calling the police instead of spreading the love, salting the earth, and in clothing her. They’re supposed to be about salvation and not damnation and incarceration.

“Stealing” once again from an Op Shop, $57 worth of second-hand clothes.

And charged with “stealing” for not having the money to pay for a breakfast, $31 worth.

I was in Court supporting another individual. I shook my head as penalty after penalty – fines – were dished out to someone who cannot afford these fines. It’s like the Police and the Judicial system are bent on breaking her altogether. So, she now has $1000 plus in fines that she cannot afford. Before long the $1000 will be added to, with more penalties for failure to pay. Who are these Police and the Courts? What muddled and crazy mindedness dictates? Talk about the blind madness of privilege and classism.

If this young woman could not afford $9.40 worth of food, could not afford rags from an Op Shop, will she all of a sudden be able to afford $1000 in fines?

Let us remind ourselves that this is a nation where children have been locked up for “stealing” $2 all up of lollies. A nation where children “stole” stationery and pencils so they could go to school and ‘fit in’ but were jailed.

My heart ached for this young woman. While she was reduced to a statistic in that Court, and denied love and compassion, I remembered Johnny Warramarrba.

Johnny was a 15-year-old orphan. He “stole” $90 worth of stationery.

Johnny’s mother died when he was a baby. Johnny’s dad was killed in a car accident when he was eleven. His grandmother looked after him.

It was February 9, 2000, when he was arrested in his Groote Eylandt home for the stealing of $90 of stationery. There was no salt-of-earth rapport, no counselling, but he was journeyed by police 800 kilometres to Darwin and jailed in Don Dale.

Don Dale is infamous for its bereft of humanity.

Johnny hung himself in a Don Dale cell, five days before he was due for release. The guards ordered him around. A prison officer told him to wash up. He would not budge. The prison officer confined Johnny to his cell. A little while later Johnny was found hanging. Nine hours later Johnny died in Darwin Hospital.

This was nearly 20 years ago, but what’s changed?

Ten years ago, a 12-year-old boy was arrested and jailed for “stealing” a piece of chocolate – a Freddo frog. He was charged for stealing from a Coles Supermarket. He was locked up for 70 cents of chocolate. Seriously?

The kid had no previous convictions.

A piece of chocolate, hunger, second-hand clothes, stationery…

Are we really this heartless, this meanspirited, this immutable?

Who are we?

These children, our poor, are screaming for help and instead of listening to them, redeeming them, validating them, we brutalise, degrade, isolate, bash.

We can be a devastatingly cruel people.

There is nothing as profoundly powerful as forgiveness, as love, as believing in others. If we believe in others, they will believe in themselves.

Forgiveness cultivated and understood keeps families solid, society too, as opposed to the corrosive anger that diminishes people to the darkest and direst places, into living mentally unwell. Anger is a warning sign to become unwell. Aberrance too.

You’d think love comes more natural to the human heart despite that hate can subsume. In the battle between love and hate, one will choose love more easily if it’s the light of day.

Hate can never achieve what love ever so easily can. Hate and anger have filled prisons and juvenile detention centres, cast many more into mental unwellness.

These children, youth, they are not criminally minded, but alone. We, as a society, deliver them as lost. Society punishes like there is no tomorrow.

We do live in draconian times, and with Governments bent on punishing, and we do suffer a Commonwealth Government that contextually is the most classist, racist, heartless Government since 1901.

In the week after Johnny’s suicide, a 22-year-old Groote Eylandt man was sentenced to jail for a Christmas Day ‘crime’ in 1998. He was found guilty of stealing biscuits and cordial from the storeroom of one the nation’s richest mining companies, a manganese mob. Jamie Wurramara was jailed for $23 of biscuits and cordial he took on Christmas Day so his family could experience a little more on the day, Christmas.

The public outcries come and go and are forgotten, but the broken and ruined lives mount.

The principles of proportionality just don’t happen in the Courts that I sit in.

In Western Australia, there’s also the reprehension of mandatory sentencing. Mandatory sentencing legislation diminishes our Courts further, racing us to the bottom. Although mandatory sentencing legislation assumes every offence of home burglary is equally serious, home burglary covers a wide range of circumstances. In one case, a 12-year-old boy with a traumatic life, was sentenced to 12 months detention for entering a house with others and stealing a wallet containing $4. The boy’s previous burglaries comprised of trespassing into a hotel laundry room but taking nothing and of stealing a can of soft drink from a school canteen.

We are not spared by these stories as rare, they are common.

The principles of proportionality should be immutably rudimentary.

My friend and colleague, Megan Krakouer states, “It is my people, who have been dealt levels of poverty and trauma no other peoples in our nation endure, who are disproportionately subjected to Western Australian and Northern Territory Courts with no agency to factor in mitigation, or their lives considered, because mandatory sentencing does not permit.”

The CEO of the Aboriginal Legal Services Western Australia, Dennis Eggington states, “Mandatory sentencing laws are repugnant and do not hold any accord to the Fernando Principle where judges, magistrates should at least have discretion to take into account the circumstances of many of our people.”

“Mandatory sentencing is discriminatory and dangerous.”

The Chairperson of the Geraldton Regional Aboriginal Medicals Services, Sandy Davies states, “Mandatory sentencing should be done away. It is not a face of justice.”

“Three offences lands someone in jail but these offences may not be serious but mandatory sentencing does not care.”

The CEO of Ngalla Maya, Mervyn Eades states, “In the last 18 weeks my organisation has trained and employed 70 recently released prisoners. If vulnerable people can be guided by Courts to programs like ours, this surely is preferable; to transformational alternatives, but mandatory sentencing does not allow for this.”

Johnny Warramarrba should have lived a good life, scored the education he craved, not hung himself, 15 years young at Don Dale.

No child should ever be locked up for 70 cents of chocolate.

The young woman in Court today should not have been fined. The Salvation Army should not have called the police but given this young woman dignity and love.


  • Gerry Georgatos is the national coordinator of the National Suicide Prevention & Trauma Recovery Project