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Law fights to close the gap

Briefs

Cite as: September 2013 87 (9) LIJ, p.14

Following calls by the nation’s legal bodies to reduce the soaring rate of Indigenous incarceration, the federal government has included this aim in its new national Closing the Gap targets.

The Coalition too, signalled support for cutting Indigenous prison rates in the new targets after national and state legal bodies said Indigenous incarceration must be addressed.

The Law Council of Australia (LCA), the Australian Bar Association (ABA), the Victorian Bar and the LIV have called on government and the legal profession to take practical steps which will address the worsening record of imprisonment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

New reports show that Indigenous people, who make up 2.5 per cent of the population, represent 26 per cent of the prison population. In 1991, it was 14 per cent, according to the Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee and the Australian Institute of Criminology reports.

In the decade to 2010, Indigenous imprisonment rose by 51.5 per cent and in 2012, Indigenous adults were imprisoned at a rate 15 times higher than that of non-Indigenous adults. The rate of incarceration is growing fastest among Indigenous women and children.

LCA and ABA president Michael Colbran QC said state and territory governments were failing in their duties to address this serious social problem and said federal leadership on the issue. “A national approach is vital in addressing the over-representation of Indigenous people in custody – elevating this issue to the national agenda of COAG would represent an important step forward in this process,” Mr Colbran said.

“While there are some promising programs such as bail hostels in some states, these programs have only had minimal impact because of countervailing policies such as mandatory sentencing.

“The COAG Closing the Gap Initiative does not include any specific justice targets – this would seem a good place to start.”

Victorian Bar chair Fiona McLeod agreed. “We agree that a justice target should be included in the Closing the Gap targets aimed at addressing Indigenous disadvantage.”

Ms McLeod commended the expansion of the Koori Court in Victoria and the launch of RAPs by the Victorian Bar and the LIV, but said as a profession “there is more we can do”.

LCA president-elect Duncan McConnel, who is also a member of the LCA’s Indigenous Legal Issues Committee, said it was appalling that 22 years after the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody there had been no decrease in imprisonment rates, but an increase.

“This is not just an issue of how the criminal justice systems deals with Indigenous Australians, but why they are coming into the system in the first place,” Mr McConnel said.

LIV president Reynah Tang urged the government to increase Indigenous legal services funding.

“We urge the government to consider trialling Justice Reinvestment in a remote Aboriginal community. It makes sense to spend more money on services that could help prevent crime, rather than on punishing people by jailing them. The LIV is doing its bit with its RAP, but we need governments to do more, too.”

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