An 11-year-old boy charged with murder has come to epitomise Australia's great shame: the plight of its Aboriginal citizens.
The boy is one of the youngest people to be charged with murder in Australia. He was part of a gang of seven or eight boys, teenagers and young men who roamed Perth late into the night on Australia Day, January 26.
Around 3am, the boy's gang got into a fist fight with another group in the city's downtown. But some of the gang members were armed with wooden stakes, screwdrivers, glass bottles and metal fence pickets, and they chased 26-year-old Patrick Slater into an alcove of a tram stop. Slater, also an Aboriginal, was left bleeding from fatal wounds to his head, chest and leg.
The nature of the death horrified Perth. The 11-year-old, who cannot be named under Australian law, was arrested nine days later.
More Aborigines than ever are going to prison. "They are the most imprisoned people in the world," said Harry Blagg, a professor of criminology at the University of Western Australia who specialises in Aboriginal policy.
Aboriginal children in Western Australia are 53 times more likely to be jailed than other Australians, according to the Change the Record Coalition, which is trying to reduce incarceration rates for Aborigines. Eighty per cent of children in state detention in Western Australia are Aboriginal, even though Aborigines make up only 4.5 per cent of the juvenile population, according to the state Government.
"If Aboriginal families can be given stronger structures to provide better support, then hopefully that will be an answer," said Jackie Huggins, the co-chair of the Change the Record Coalition. Some legal experts and Aboriginal leaders, including Huggins, think the 11-year-old is too young to be charged with a serious offence such as murder. In Australia, the age of criminal responsibility is 10.
At the boy's first court appearance, the prosecutor revealed that at the time of the killing, he was on bail after being charged with threatening and robbing a man of A$50 in October. A newspaper published a Facebook photo of him holding up a fistful of hundred-dollar bills and making what looked like a gang symbol.
The victim's family wants the boy to be tried as an adult, which could lead to a custodial sentence of decades instead of the four to five years that would be more likely if he were found guilty as a child.
At the court hearing, the two families were kept in separate rooms. Outside, members of Slater's family threatened to kill the boy.
- Washington Post, Bloomberg