Date: August 24 2012
Dozens of Indonesians who crewed boats carrying asylum seekers to Australia will no longer face mandatory five-year jail terms if convicted of people smuggling, after the Gillard government moved yesterday to restore judicial discretion.
Attorney-General Nicola Roxon will now take the extraordinary step of issuing a directive to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions so that first-time offenders and ''low-culpability crew'' can be charged with offences that do not carry mandatory prison terms.
The directive will enable prosecutors of more than 20 cases slated for hearing in the County Court in Victoria, and dozens in other states, to change charges so that judges can take into account whether offenders were duped into working on boats by those profiting from people smuggling.
The decision came as the government announced the biggest increase in Australia's refugee intake in three decades - from 13,750 to 20,000 - would go ahead this financial year to encourage asylum seekers to have their claims processed before risking their lives on leaky boats.
Stressing the carrot-and-stick strategy proposed by the government's expert panel, Prime Minister Julia Gillard said there were now two clear messages for asylum seekers - if they boarded boats they risked being sent to Nauru or Manus Island, but if they stayed put and had their claims processed, there were more resettlement places in Australia. Ms Roxon said she had been working with her department on alternatives for mandatory sentencing following the expert panel's report and a sustained outcry from judges and legal aid groups.
Earlier this month, Judge Liz Gaynor launched a scathing attack on mandatory sentencing laws under which a poor, grieving Indonesian, described by one of his passengers as a ''fine and noble man'' was sent to jail for five years.
Describing the laws as like drift-net fishing - in that they were aimed at big fish but caught ''small fry'' - she told an Indonesian his crime of steering an asylum seeker boat towards Ashmore Reef was ''vastly outweighed by the sentence I must impose''.
Aside from easing Indonesian concerns that the laws have compounded the poverty of families who have been denied their main breadwinner for five years, the change will ease the load on the court system because offenders will now have some incentive to plead guilty.
Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said 400 of the extra places in the refugee intake would be set aside for those processed in Indonesia and announced that $10 million would be spent as a down payment on building the capacity of transit countries to deal with asylum seekers. Increasing the humanitarian program by 6250 places in 2012-13 would cost around $150 million, he said.
The opposition said telling the world that Australia would take more refugees before the processing centres were up and running on Nauru or Papua New Guinea sent the wrong message.
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