The over-representation of Indigenous Australians in prison is one of the most urgent human rights issues facing the country today, according to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda, as reported by the ABC.
In his 2014 Social Justice and Native Title report, Mr Gooda urged the Federal Government to adopt a justice target in its Closing The Gap strategy that would reduce the current rate of Indigenous incarceration.
Mr Gooda said he was shocked by statistics released by the Productivity Commission last month that showed a 57 per cent rise in the incarceration rates among Indigenous men, women and children over the past 15 years.
“That’s just a catastrophe in anyone’s language,” he said.
“Nationally, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults are 15 times more likely to be imprisoned than non-Indigenous Australians.”
Around half of all young Australians in juvenile detention are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, and the Indigenous recidivism rate of 58 per cent within 10 years was significantly higher than the Indigenous school retention rate from Year 7 to Year 12.
“We do better at keeping Aboriginal people in prison than in school,” Mr Gooda said.
Indigenous Incarceration facts
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults are 15 times more likely to be imprisoned than non-Indigenous Australians.
- From 2000-2013, the imprisonment rate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults increased 57 per cent while the non-Indigenous rate remained fairly stable.
- The juvenile detention rate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is around 24 times the rate for non-Indigenous youth.
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have reported being the victim of physical or threatened violence at 1.8 times the rate of non-Indigenous adults.
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are hospitalised for family violence-related assault at 31 times the rate of non-Indigenous women.
“I think that’s a sad indictment when you think of kids getting their education in prison instead of at a high school.”
The rate of Indigenous incarceration is having a knock-on effect in Indigenous communities and has become an inter-generational problem, according to the commissioner.
“We know people in houses or families where people have been put in jail are more likely to go to jail themselves,” Mr Gooda said.
“So these inter-generational effects start happening and building on each other and we’re getting this cohort of people basically become institutionalised really young and that continues right through to adult age.”
Mr Gooda said justice should be included as a Closing The Gap goal so the Federal Government would be required to report its progress on issues such as incarceration and recidivism.
“We have a whole range of targets in the Closing The Gap strategies and the one missing, in my view, is one on justice,” he said.
“Prime minister Rudd agreed, prime minister Gillard continued and Prime Minister Abbott continues to give a report to Parliament every year on the Closing The Gap targets and if you don’t [include] incarceration there, you miss giving a focus to it.
“Even that prime ministerial report is a really strong form of accountability.”
Mr Gooda also recommended governments, at federal, state and local levels, adopt “justice reinvestment” as a way to reduce the Indigenous prison population and curb the number of young Indigenous people entering the criminal justice system.
He said funds allocated to prisons should be reinvested in community-driven programs and strategies that address the underlying causes of Indigenous offending.
- The Australian Government revises its current position on targets as part of Closing the Gap, to include holistic justice targets aimed at promoting safer communities.
- The Australian Government actively consults and works with the National Justice Coalition on justice related issues.
- The Australian Government takes a leadership role on justice reinvestment and works with states, territories and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to identify further trial sites.
Mr Gooda pointed to the north-western New South Wales town of Bourke, where 30 per cent of the population is Aboriginal, as an example of justice reinvestment.
“We’re negotiating with the Government that we’ll agree on a figure that it costs to incarcerate people in Bourke … and somewhere down the track, if we can reduce the incarceration rate by 10 per cent, we will look at the Government reinvesting a portion of that cost back into Bourke.”
Mr Gooda said the Bourke Justice Reinvestment Project, which started in March, had seen the community build its own capacity to reduce Indigenous incarceration.
“The first step they’re taking is having an amnesty on outstanding warrants,” he said.
“That means the police, the magistrates, the legal services and the community sits down and starts working out how to deal with this.
“Out of that [comes the question]: ‘What do we do afterwards?’ All of a sudden they’re talking about employment, what’s the barriers to employment, education, housing?
“So there’s things emerging in Bourke where they’re going to address the whole lot of it holistically.”
Mr Gooda was due to formally launch the 2014 Social Justice and Native Title report in Sydney.