Gang Rape in Sydney: Crime, the Media, Politics, Race and Sentencing

Article excerpt

In 2001 and 2002, print, radio and television gave extensive coverage to 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.

**********

The moral panic about "mugging" in the 1970s in the United Kingdom, with its connection between the two exclusionary themes of immigration control and crime has clear parallels with the ethnic gang rapes in Sydney in 2000 and 2001. Hall, Crichter, Jefferson, Clarke, & Roberts (1978) did not deny that some black youths were involved in what came to be known as mugging, but they argued that the official reaction was out of proportion to the crime and effectively criminalised an entire social group, namely young Black males. Street crime was portrayed by the media as a new danger associated with a newly-arrived segment of the population. Similarly, in Sydney in the years 2000 and 2001, there were rapes committed by Lebanese youth, but their incidence was inflated by the media (and the police). This led to a heated debate about ethnic crime and links were made between ethnic Arab, Middle-Eastern and Muslim offenders, immigration, asylum-seekers and terrorists.

While this analysis of the Sydney gang rapes does not purport to be an analysis or study of a moral panic in the strict social-science sense (Cohen, 1980; Thompson, 1998), or to engage in debate about the concept (Waddington, 1986), my point is that the story of the gang rapes reveals common characteristics of a moral panic: a high level of concern over the behaviour of a certain group or category of people, an increased level of hostility towards the group regarded as a threat, and disproportionality or an exaggeration of the threat. But most particularly it demonstrates the "signification spiral" (Thompson, 1998, pp. 16, 19), the way a specific issue was linked to other problems (here, gang rape with illegal immigrants and terrorism), amplifying the perceived risks. It was not the first time that crime has been racialised in relation to Lebanese youth in Sydney as Collins, Noble, Poynting, & Tabar (2000) have demonstrated, nor is it a recent phenomenon to portray street crime as new and unprecedented and a danger associated with the newly arrived. Pearson (1983) asserts that the English have been blaming violence on somebody else for centuries, attributing increased street crime in eighteenth century London to "the uncontrolled importation of Irish vagabonds" (p. 236) and to "lawless tribes of street arabs" in the 1840s (p. …