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LIV President's Blog 2012

LIV President's Blog 2013

Reynah Tang, LIV President 2013 on the latest issues and topics. Read and comment.

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Indigenous incarceration: not much to celebrate

Indigenous incarceration: not much to celebrate
More than 20 years ago, the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody warned the Aboriginal population was “grossly over-represented” in jails, and imprisonment should be a last resort.

As we celebrate NAIDOC Week, it’s a good time to reflect on what we have in fact learned from this landmark report.

A glimpse at the statistics suggests we may be going backwards.

  • There were 1914 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners per 100,000 Indigenous people as at June last year, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. The corresponding figure for non-Indigenous prisoners was 129 per 100,000 non-Indigenous people.They’re startling figures when you consider that Indigenous people make up around 3 per cent of Australia’s entire population.
  • The rate of Indigenous incarceration has actually grown in the past decade. In 2002, the rate was 1262 per 100,000 Indigenous people, compared to 123 per 100,000 non-Indigenous people.
  • In Victoria, the Indigenous custody rate has more than doubled in the past decade, from 705 per 100,000 Indigenous people in 2002, to 1444 in 2012.
  • The situation is even more concerning for youth. There were 1024 young people in detention on an average night in the June quarter of 2012, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Of those, 53 per cent were Indigenous.
It is, however, good to see the Aboriginal Legal Service’s 24-hour legal helpline for Indigenous people in incarceration in NSW has been saved, after a petition gathered more than 30,000 signatures and the Federal Attorney-General agreed to continue funding it.
Shifting the goal posts
There is growing evidence that Indigenous incarceration has serious health and social consequences. One paper published in the Medical Journal of Australia (MJA) suggests the high rate of repeated incarceration experienced by Indigenous people achieves little in terms of increased community safety. Indeed, quite often, the reason they have been incarcerated is because the system has in some way failed them.
Some people are in prison as a direct result of the lack of appropriate community-based health and social services, particularly in the areas of housing, family violence, mental health and substance abuse. As we heard earlier this year at the National Access to Justice and Pro Bono Conference, the vast majority of the prison population has mental health issues.
The MJA paper included a study of 40 male Aboriginal prisoners. Disturbingly, three-quarters expected to have no secure accommodation on release, and about a third reported being homeless before they were jailed.
Studies have shown that prisoners are at higher risk of death when they are released from jail, compared to the general population, due to factors including substance and alcohol abuse, and suicide.
Prevention is better than cure
If we are to have a meaningful impact on reducing Indigenous incarceration rates – and recidivism – then we need to put more resources into support services in the community. And we need to invest more in prevention.
One good initiative is the Koori Court, which empowers the Aboriginal community, aims to reduce re-offending and explores options other than imprisonment. The Melbourne County Koori Court commenced this month, after a positive evaluation of the Latrobe Valley pilot.
Our prisons are over-crowded. Diversion programs – where appropriate – make sense, not only to assist in rehabilitation but also to reduce the cost to the state. But if we could go a step further and implement programs that focus on preventing crime, communities would reap even greater benefits.
One idea being flagged is “Justice Reinvestment”. It makes sense to spend less money on punishing people in jail, and to direct that money into services for people at risk of committing crimes, or re-offending. Last month, a Senate Committee released its report on the issue. It recommended that the Commonwealth commit to a trial of justice reinvestment, and that at least one remote Indigenous community be included in that trial.
It is certainly worth trialling any program that aims to make at-risk Indigenous youth feel engaged, boost their self-esteem, and keep them away from crime. Whitelion is one organisation that works on such programs, including an employment partnership program for Indigenous youth. Getting involved in a program like this may be something tangible that some of our member firms could embrace to make a real difference.
The Victorian Ombudsman is currently investigating deaths in custody. A recent report by the Australian Institute of Criminology found that Indigenous prisoners are no more likely to die in custody than non-Indigenous prisoners. The report says there were 58 deaths in prison custody in 2010-11, of which 12 were Indigenous.

While not its primary focus, this inquiry may nevertheless provide an opportunity to scrutinise the over-representation of Indigenous people in Victorian jails, and to look for solutions. Because the danger is we will be lamenting even higher rates of incarceration 20 years from now.
What do you think governments can do to reduce Indigenous incarceration rates?
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