I SPENT a day in court in Alice Springs. I knew it would show me only a sliver of the whole, but in central Australia, the whole is unfathomable. As it turns out, so is the sliver.
Initially, I felt awkward being there, observing the cases as though they were sport. So I paused in the foyer instead. A few families and individuals were sitting along the vinyl benches. The courthouse opened in 1980, replacing the low-slung heritage one on the opposite corner. It’s a blockish, concrete building, with a central atrium; the two courtrooms, the Magistrates and the Supreme, are set on either side at the back.
It was quiet. Or it would have been, if not for Ray, one of the security guards. He approached a thin young woman across from where I sat, who’d stifled a tense cough.
“It’s not the coughin‘ that carries you off, it’s the coffin they carry you off in!” he said, with fatherly glee. The woman looked perplexed, and eventually, amused.
Ray went on: “I’m not a pheasant plucker, I’m the pheasant plucker’s son. Can you say that? No swearing in here!”
He laughed good-naturedly and smoothed his dyed brown hair. “It goes like this: I’m not a pheasant plucker, I’m the pheasant plucker’s son. I’m only plucking pheasants till the pheasant plucker comes.”
The woman smiled with him, and mouthed the first line. Ray was well pleased. I watched as he worked the room, winking and testing the tongue-twister on everyone. With one young man, he progressed to “She sells sea shells by the sea shore”, and shortly afterwards, he entertained a toddler at length with the mysterious beeps of his metal detecting paddle.
I stepped into the Magistrates Court and sat through about a dozen cases. All but one of the defendants was Indigenous. (In the Territory, Indigenous people make up less than a third of the population, but more than 8 out of 10 of the prisoners.)
That day, the offences fell into two broad categories: drunken, senseless violence in town; and sober, inconsequential traffic violations on remote communities. Everyone pleaded guilty and the judge handed out very small fines, in view of the individuals’ limited capacity to pay – none had jobs. The defendants walked in silently and left without remark as the next matter began; the proceedings happened around and without them.
When the morning session adjourned I sat in the park across the road and sent a despondent message to my friend, who is a criminal lawyer in Melbourne, explaining what I’d seen. “Yeah, that doesn’t sound surprising,” she replied. “Unfair targeting or higher prevalence, I don’t know.”
Or both, I thought.
In the Supreme Court, in the afternoon, I watched the sentencing in a case that seemed to sum up the way of things, and the futility of the judicial response.
A man from a remote community was charged with two counts of causing serious harm, offenses that carry a maximum penalty of 14 years imprisonment.
He’d come to Alice to bring his mother-in-law to visit her grandson in prison. One day while he was here, he began drinking in the early afternoon. Later, he began playing cards with two uncles. They started arguing and one punched him. He punched back and broke the man’s jaw. The other man tried to stop the fight and the defendant picked up a large stick and struck and broke his arm.
When he was taken into custody, he was 33 years old, married, with a daughter he cared for while his wife was working on the Indigenous night patrol. He played footy, worked occasionally and lived simply. He had a criminal record: traffic offences ten years ago, then rioting and assault four years ago when there was a large feud between families on his community.
His barrister requested a suspended sentence, as he’d already been in custody for four months, and in that time, had apologised to the victims and resolved not to come into town to drink.
The judge disagreed. Given the man’s previous record, he sentenced him to three-and-a-half years, with a non-parole period of 21 months. The accused sat quietly. The judge called the next case.
Later, I read a report on recidivism (re-offending) posted on the Northern Territory Supreme Court website. Of all the demographics, the highest rates of recidivism are for Indigenous men between 25 and 34. Over half are caught again within two years. To what end then, is jail?
In his sentencing remarks, the judge commented that this was “yet another example of drug-fuelled violence in central Australia”. He said it wearily.
Afterwards, I sat slumped on the bench outside the court, cowering at the thought of three-and-a-half years. I watched Ray give two children photocopied drawings and coloured pencils. By the metal detector, I noticed, there was a pin-board full of finished ones.
I was unlocking my bicycle when he came out for a cigarette. “It was really nice to see you in there,” I said, “chatting to everyone, lightening the mood.”
“Oh you gotta. Everyone knows me, anyway, I’m Uncle Ray,” he said. “The managers didn’t know how to take me when I started. ‘That’s not security!’ they told me.”
We spoke for a while. Ray said his mother was a “half-cast” and his father a “whitefella”, that he and his siblings were part of the stolen generations. They’d grown up rough, in a home. He’d gotten into boxing, trained hard, and later, run a boxing gym for a long time.
“Sometimes people ask me if they’re going to be sent to jail. I say: ‘I dunno. I’m just the security guard. You better hope the judge got naughty in the mornin‘, or he’s just having a good day.
“I say to them: ‘You gettin‘ sentenced on Friday? Well, you better enjoy your Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday! Nothing else you can do. You’ve gotta change what you can – if you can’t change it, don’t worry about it. Worry about it on Friday.’”
Cheerily, Ray told me to come visit him at court whenever I was in town. He perked up my afternoon. And his advice is better than any response I could muster. Trouble is, that day felt worrisome, like a Friday. Every day in Alice is like a Friday.