In 2001 and 2002, print, radio and television gave extensive coverage to a series of gang rapes in Bankstown and other suburbs of south-west Sydney. The coverage attacked the laxity and inefficiency of the criminal justice system and immigration policy. It fuelled public fears about increases in crime in particular areas and fear of “ethnic gangs” and racially-motivated crime. The sentences imposed on three youths of Lebanese background in the first of these cases to be dealt with attracted widespread criticism from politicians, the media and the public because of their leniency. These events occurred at a time when issues of race were in the news as a result of the arrival of “boat people”, followed by a heightened fear of terrorism because of the events of September 11, 2001. The issue of gang rape by ethnic-minority youth resurfaced in August 2002 when a second group of offenders, again Lebanese-Australian youth, were sentenced, this time with gaol terms which for the most part were applauded for their severity. In parliament, legislation was introduced to increase penalties and political parties engaged in a pre-election law-and-order auction. These events are portrayed as an example of how a localised story about crime can become “racialised” and linked with debates about asylum-seekers and terrorism. This article attempts to draw out some of the criminal-justice issues from this story. In particular it explores some of the flaws in the sentencing process that assisted in inflaming the debate. A pedagogical role for judges is suggested in relation to the public understanding of crime and guideline judgements are recommended.

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