Aboriginal dancers in Australia lead a protest march at a rally to mark the twentieth anniversary
of the handing down of the report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.
During the past decade, Aboriginal imprisonment rates across Australia have skyrocketed by more than 50 percent – to a point where Aboriginal Australian adults are 13 times more likely to end up in jail than the rest of the population.
And Aboriginal Australians now account for about a quarter of the nation’s overall adult prison population, despite making up less than three percent of the broader population.
The situation is so dire that advocates have pleaded for the reduction of Indigenous incarceration to be added to official close-the-gap targets.
So what’s to be done to arrest the current shameful state of affairs?
High-profile Australians including leading lights from sport, the arts and the legal fraternity are now putting their shoulders to the wheel, pledging to use their influence to bring about change.
They say it’s time governments, including the NSW government, spent less on putting people in prison and more on prevention, early intervention and treatment for Aboriginal young people. Unless a fresh approach is taken, they say, Australia is in danger of throwing away another Aboriginal generation.
At Government House in Sydney last week, NSW Governor Marie Bashir launched the Justice Reinvestment Campaign for Aboriginal Young People.
The campaign will highlight that in NSW Aboriginal young people (who make up just 2.2 percent of the population) are now 28 times more likely to end up in juvenile detention than non-Aboriginal young people at an annual cost of more than $230,000 per young person.
“Aboriginal young people surely need our help and our support to address the circumstances that lead to prison,” Professor Bashir said.
Make a difference
“Communities need more help to support Aboriginal young people. More programs indeed are required that can make a real difference and positively engage Aboriginal young people who may be at risk of offending. Incarceration is not the solution.
“More community cohesion, more hope and a better future for our valuable young people are required.”
Campaign organisers point out the NSW government was elected with a justice policy that clearly contains the principles of justice reinvestment whereby funds are diverted away from prison into prevention programs that address the underlying causes of crimes in communities.
In 2011, strategic management and knowledge consulting firm the Noetic Group recommended in a NSW review of the juvenile justice system that a “justice reinvestment model” be adopted.
The campaign is specifically calling on the NSW government to implement a justice reinvestment policy and is seeking a commitment to establish a Justice Reinvestment Advisory Group to oversee the process. This group would then provide input into the development and implementation of justice reinvestment policies, monitor the proportion of funds redirected from corrections and detention over the next five to ten years and monitor the levels of Aboriginal young people in detention.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda described the current situation of over-incarceration of Indigenous people as “totally unacceptable and shameful”.
National Indigenous Drug and Alcohol Committee (NIDAC) chairperson Associate Professor Ted Wilkes said substantial money had been invested in the correctional system but had made no headway in reducing the Aboriginal over-representation in prison.
“Aboriginal Australians are increasingly filling our prisons and juvenile detention centres at alarmingly disproportionate rates,” he said. “We need treatment services and rehabilitation services. Not bloody prisons.
“We’ve simply had enough of seeing Aboriginal people locked up in increased numbers. The current justice system is not working for Aboriginal people. It’s a national disgrace.”
Sally Fitzpatrick, from Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation (NSW), said that locking up people was an expensive way to deal with crime and didn’t work, given that 70 percent of people who have been imprisoned re-offend.
Executive director of the Australian National Council on Drugs Gino Vumbaca said it was time to stop talking about being soft or tough on crime and instead talk more about being smart or dumb on crime.
“Then we might start making the changes that are needed to make a difference in the community,” he said.
Other campaign “champions” include Sydney Swans captain and Brownlow Medallist Adam Goodes, acting legend Jack Thompson, retired High Court Justice Michael Kirby, former NSW Director of Public Prosecutions Nicholas Cowdery, La Perouse Local Aboriginal Land Council chairperson Marcia Ella Duncan, St Vincent de Paul CEO Graham West, 2009 Australian of the Year Mick Dodson and former Federal Home Affairs Minister Bob Debus.
Recent comments from NSW Attorney-General Greg Smith suggest the state government will be receptive to the campaign.