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Bold steps needed to keep people out of jail

The NSW Governor, Marie Bashir, former High Court judge Michael Kirby and former state attorney-general Bob Debus are among a high-profile group calling for tens of millions of dollars to be diverted from the juvenile justice system each year into prevention to stem the ”shameful” high rate of jailed young Aborigines, reports the SMH.

Aboriginal youths are 28 times more likely to end up in detention, at a cost of $230,000 a year a person, NSW Justice Department figures show.

Mr Kirby said the criminal justice approach had ”failed” both Aboriginal people and the wider community. ”Clearly, there is a shocking problem on our hands. We have to be ready to take bold steps and even some risks,” he said.

Mr Kirby likened the challenge to that faced in the 1980s in getting HIV infection rates down by introducing needle exchanges, decriminalising sex work and sanctions against gays. ”But where are the political leaders on Aboriginal imprisonment like [former federal health ministers] Neal Blewett and Peter Baume were on HIV? Where are the brave strategies, thinking outside the square¬†This is a call to wake up and face this issue. It has been with us for years. This is a call for new thinking. It is urgent.”

A Herald investigation revealed on Saturday that the reconviction rate among indigenous offenders was 83 per cent, compared with 54 per cent overall.

New data from the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research also shows that 30 per cent of indigenous juvenile offenders were in custody within 10 years of their initial contact with the juvenile justice system, compared with 9.4 per cent overall.

The Justice Reinvestment for Aboriginal Young People campaign, launched today, includes such supporters as former NSW director of public prosecutions Nicholas Cowdery, actor Jack Thompson, AFL star Adam Goodes and several high-profile Aboriginal rights campaigners such as Mick Gooda, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission.

Mr Gooda said the rate of incarceration of Aboriginal youths is ”totally unacceptable and shameful”.

The campaign is calling for funds to be diverted from prisons into prevention and treatment programs for young Aborigines to address issues such as poverty, homelessness and drug and alcohol use.

It wants the government to set up a committee to determine what proportion of funds should be diverted over coming years but campaign member Gino Vumbaca, the executive director of the Australian National Council on Drugs, said 10 per cent would be a ”reasonable starting point”.

Mr Vumbaca said the money could potentially come from several government departments but mostly the Justice Department, which alone has an estimated budget for juvenile offenders of $200 million in 2011-12.

A spokesman for the Attorney-General and Justice Minister, Greg Smith, said he would consider the group’s proposal.

Read the full story from the SMH.

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