Increased Indigenous incarceration since Royal Commission
Government report recommends re-establishing Indigenous bodies to improve shocking incarceration rates. Ashleigh Berdebes reports.
A House of Representatives report, released in June, calls it a “shameful state of affairs” that Indigenous youth are currently 28 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-Indigenous juveniles.
The situation has only worsened in the 20 years since Government accepted the previous Royal Commission’s recommendations, with the incarceration rate for Indigenous Australians increasing by 66 per cent between 2000 and 2009.
Recommendations such as cross-cultural training for police, arrest and gaoling (as a matter of last resort), and an advisory body to liaise with police and Government regarding Indigenous justice were also present in 1991’s Royal Commission report and have reappeared 20 years later in the current one.
Ray Jackson, President of the Indigenous Social Justice Association, says Doing Time – Time for Doing: Indigenous Youth in the Criminal Justice System is just “reinventing the wheel”.
“If one has a look at the recommendations that are in the report, one can quite easily refer those recommendations back to the 1991 Royal Commission that handed down 339 recommendations.”
The Federal Government recently accepted all of the report’s 40 recommendations to minimise incarceration, recidivism and the overrepresentation of Indigenous youth in the criminal justice system, who represent 53% of Australia’s juvenile inmates.
Ray Jackson says, “The major problem with all of these reports is the recommendations appertaining to the police are totally ignored.”
“The police will not accept any of the recommendations that change their everyday work practices, and they will continue just to do what they do every day, which is focus in on Aboriginal kids and continue to churn them through the courts.”
With 58% of Indigenous offenders being re-imprisoned within 10 years, the Law Council of Australia suggests that “‘therapeutic’ or restorative justice mechanisms” such as “Aboriginal sentencing courts, youth courts, drug and alcohol courts… have been demonstrated to have a greater impact on recidivism, particularly among young people.”
Constructive proposals in the Commission’s report include finding accommodation for those let out on bail, hearing tests for all pre-schoolers, providing pre-natal and ante-natal support for Indigenous mothers, diagnosing and officially recognising Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder as a disability, creating school attendance incentive programs, and providing teacher development and defense force recruitment.
The Federal Government has also promised to act on the recommendation of the creation of an Indigenous Law and Justice Advisory Body, a mediating force between youth and the criminal justice system, strikingly similar to one which Ray Jackson was a chairman of in the early 1990s, following the first Royal Commission.
When being asked what happened to the previous Aboriginal Justice Advisory Council, or, AJAC, Ray Jackson says “well, the police didn’t like it, because we used to question the police on their methods, and we questioned the government on their methods.”
“The major problem was, at each monthly meeting, we would have a different Copper with a different rank… they just stumbled through the whole thing, they just filibustered, in a sense. And we were bought to a screeching halt.
“We couldn’t do anything, nothing was happening.”
In response, Aboriginal members of AJAC decided to abandon the Government offices and take the meetings to Aboriginal members of the public, in places like La Perouse, Liverpool, and Mount Druitt. During this time, AJAC was dismantled by the Government.
“The Coppers didn’t like it, the government didn’t like it, so they shut us down.”
The justice system – including police and juvenile justice, is the responsibility of the each State and Territory Government, making the extensive reform of Indigenous justice practises that the Commission recommends difficult to monitor and more vulnerable to bureaucratic neglect.
Ray Jackson believes that if anything is to be achieved following this report, the Government needs to do away with self-regulation, and that an oversight body needs to be established that includes community representatives.
The accountability for implementing these recommendations needs to be sufficiently regulated; responsibility must be allocated, enforced, and audited on a long-term basis to have any effect on the incarceration rates for Indigenous youth and intergenerational disadvantage and discrimination in general.
“They have to have equal involvement and power to the government bodies, and the departmental bodies.
“It’s no use going to meetings and they just politely hear to what you’ve got to say and you walk out and it’s all over… It’s forgotten.”
“I don’t have any great belief that the government really wants an Aboriginal advisory body that’s going to tell them like it is, they want a tame cat body who will come along and mumble a few words and have a few beers and a canapé or something and that’s it!
“Well, we want more than that.”