Boy jailed for an ice cream
Amanda Banks

A 15-YEAR-OLD Aboriginal boy has been in custody for the past 12 days after being sent more than 1500km from his home in the nation's remote northwest - for attempting to steal a $2 ice cream.

West Australian authorities spent about $10,000 escorting the teenager on a flight to Perth, where he faced the Children's Court yesterday.

The cold hazelnut roll was stuffed down the back of his shorts as "Joshua" initially denied he had taken the ice cream when confronted by a staff member - the wife of a local policeman - at the supermarket in Onslow, a tiny town 300km south of Karratha, on May 23.

But when asked again, the teenager confessed.

He produced the ice cream and waited for police to arrive - the stolen property returned to the store uneaten and undamaged.

Since being caught, the boy, abandoned by his own family, has been held in custody for an offence that is not even punishable by detention.

The Aboriginal Legal Service yesterday condemned his treatment as government agencies attempted to justify the teenager's arrest and incarceration.

For Aboriginal Legal Service director Dennis Eggington, it was further proof that Aboriginal people are dealt with far more harshly than white people when they end up on the wrong side of the law.

Joshua, who for legal reasons cannot be given his real name, was refused bail by the Onslow police and driven nearly 300km to be held in custody at the Karratha police station.

He appeared before two justices of the peace the following day and was remanded in custody to appear in court in Perth. He was escorted by police on a 1400km flight to Perth and sent to Rangeview, the state's only juvenile detention facility. His attempt to steal the ice cream was not the first time Joshua has been in trouble with the law.

In February, Children's Court president Denis Reynolds placed the youngster on a 12-month conditional release order for multiple charges of aggravated burglary - his "third strike" under Western Australia's tough burglary laws.

At the end of his tether, Joshua's father says he can no longer care for the troubled teenager.

His mother is simply incapable of looking after the youngster - she is a chronic alcoholic in a violent relationship, now living in a two-bedroom unit with nine other people after the gas and electricity were turned off at her own house because of unpaid bills.

With neither friends nor family for support, Joshua - whose one avid interest appears to be fishing - appeared in the Perth Children's Court yesterday and pleaded guilty to one count of attempted stealing.

Outraged by his treatment, ALS lawyer Peter Collins said Joshua had been dealt a grave injustice.

Mr Collins said police could have sensibly chosen numerous diversionary tactics other than sending the teenager into custody, including a caution and a referral to a juvenile justice team. "The approach taken on this occasion smacks of overkill," he said.

"It is hard not to think that this is another example of a young Aboriginal offender from a small regional town of WA who has (incurred) in the past and continues to incur the wrath of local police and whose punishment for that is to be over-policed for the most innocuous breach of the law, to a point that eventually cost him his liberty - a precious commodity which is seriously under-valued."

While Judge Reynolds said he was staggered by Joshua's situation, he suggested the court was not a forum to air Mr Collins' concerns about the police, who may have been acting out of sheer desperation. "I would say it is a bit over the top to say the least," Judge Reynolds said. "In this particular case, I don't think (he) should be here."

The president, who returned Joshua to the state's north west without any additional punishment, said the boy's apparent failure to comply with the conditional release order imposed in February was likely the reason for his placement in custody.

But Mr Collins's outrage is supported by statistics, which show Aboriginal juveniles are 38 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-Aboriginal juveniles. Research also shows 89 per cent of Aboriginal juveniles in regional areas are arrested by police, and 56 per cent of those children are remanded in custody.

ALS director Denis Eggington said Joshua's treatment was an indictment on the failures of the justice system and breached the recommendations of the royal commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. "There is this feeling that these young people are somehow a menace to society," Mr Eggington said.

"But really they are a product of society and society has to take a responsibility to put these kids back on the rails and to help them become productive citizens and equip them for their life ahead."

The state's Justice Minister John D'Orazio - who described Joshua's remand in custody as disgraceful and ridiculous - yesterday acknowledged a need to intervene in such cases with a coordinated effort by all agencies.

Mr D'Orazio said the Department of Community Development, which has had no involvement with Joshua or his family, needed to become involved and its failure to do so needed to be dealt with internally.

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