SYDNEY — An 11-year-old boy charged with murder has come to epitomize Australia’s great shame: the plight of its aboriginal citizens, who may be the most jailed people in the Western world.
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 the remote city of Perth late into the night on Australia’s national day, Jan. 26.
Equivalent to Independence Day in the United States, Australia Day has been dubbed “Invasion Day” by some aborigines who resent the colonization of their lands by the English starting in 1788.
About 3 a.m., 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 11-year-old, who cannot be named under Australian law, was arrested nine days later.
The nature of the death horrified Perth, an affluent city of 1.8 million known for its laid-back bars, balmy evenings and beautiful beaches overlooking the Indian Ocean. Beneath the surface, though, the state of Western Australia, of which Perth is the capital, has always been a tough place to grow up aboriginal.
Despite a century of mostly well-intentioned policy, experts say, 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 specializes in aboriginal policy, in an interview.
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 percent of children in state detention in Western Australia are aboriginal, even though aborigines make up about 4.5 percent of the state’s juvenile population, according to the state government.
A high proportion of aboriginal children do poorly in school, and their truancy rates are high. Many live in squalor, in communities where alcoholism and drug taking are rife and where domestic violence occurs daily.
Parental authority has broken down in many families. Parents’ expectations for their children’s professional prospects are close to zero, a standard that many aboriginal children find it depressingly easy to meet, community leaders say.
“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. “Strong families is what’s needed. Hopefully, we can bring this back within a generation.”
Some legal experts and aboriginal leaders, including Huggins, say they think the 11-year-old is too young to be charged with a serious offense such as murder. In Australia, the age of criminal responsibility is 10.
That is low by international standards — the global average was calculated at 12 by criminologist Don Cipriani in 2009. In the United States, 33 states have no minimum age for criminal responsibility, according to the Child Rights International Network, an advocacy group. In the other states, the age varies from as low as 7 in North Carolina to as high as 10 in Wisconsin.
At the boy’s first court appearance, the prosecutor revealed that at the time of the killing, he was out on bail after being charged with threatening and robbing a man of 50 Australian dollars ($35) 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.
Australia’s only aboriginal federal minister, Ken Wyatt, has known the boy’s family for many years and recently met with members of Slater’s family. Wyatt, who is a deputy health minister, said that he thinks some of the media coverage has been inflammatory and that information could emerge in a trial that might blunt some of the public anger toward the boy.
“I suspect that if he was caught up in this melee, then you could suppose . . . when you are caught up in the events that happened, then sometimes fully rational thinking doesn’t prevail,” Wyatt said in an interview.
The boy’s lawyer, Helen Prince, did not respond to an email and phone call. She told the court the boy’s parents were at a hospital with a dying relative and had left their son under the supervision of a sister and aunt on the day of the death. He attended school one day in four on average, she said, and his teachers had described him as a “lovely young man” and a “gentle and sensitive boy who had a positive outlook and a genuine desire to please.”
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. One of Slater’s cousins, Vanessa Brockman, said: “From one aboriginal family to another, there is no excuse.”
A magistrate decided to keep the boy in jail until it becomes clearer where he would live if granted bail again.
The state’s prisons minister, Joe Francis, has made it his personal mission to cut the number of aboriginal children in custody by finding alternative forms of punishment and rehabilitation. During the past 21/2 years, the number has fallen to 130 from 220, he said in an interview, and an innovative project pays a prominent aboriginal elder if he can help young offenders stay out of trouble.
But Francis said that some children, regardless of their race, are dangerous and must be locked up. “Just because you are 11 doesn’t mean you can’t take a life,” he said.