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Issue #1595      May 29, 2013

Optimism on justice campaign

A push aimed at encouraging the NSW government to take a new approach to the shameful number of young Aboriginal people ending up in jail is beginning to gain ground, according to one of its key champions.

It’s been nearly a year since the launch of the Justice Reinvestment Campaign, around diverting money out of the prison system to reinvest it into services that address the underlying causes of crime in communities, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda says he’s optimistic.

“My estimation is that if justice reinvestment is going to work anywhere in Australia, it’s going to be here in NSW,” Mr Gooda told the Koori Mail newspaper.

“And that’s because, from the day the (Barry O’Farrell-led) Coalition got elected, we started a conversation with them. For example, the Attorney-General Greg Smith realised that he had to do something about the Bail Act because all these particular young kids were in remand and 85 percent of them never went to jail after their court cases, and something had to be done and they’ve done that.

“ ... I think we’re getting traction with the conceptual framework around justice reinvestment.”

According to recent data, the adult Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander imprisonment rate is 14 times higher than the non-Indigenous rate, and Indigenous young people are 35 times more likely to be in detention than other young people. Nearly 60 percent of those in detention are Indigenous. And the rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in prison increased 58.6 percent between 2000 and 2010.

A Senate committee is looking at the value of a justice reinvestment approach and the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has recommended that:

  • The federal government, in partnership with state and territory governments, funds properly evaluated justice reinvestment trials in selected Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities where there’s a high level of imprisonment; and
  • The federal government and state and territory governments commit to justice targets as part of the Closing the Gap Strategy; ideally aiming for incarceration rates of around three percent (reflecting overall Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population rates).

High Indigenous incarceration rates have severe social and economic consequences, according to the AHRC. “Socially we can’t afford it and financially we can’t afford it,” Mr Gooda said.

“We did some work a couple of years ago that said that if we incarcerated Aboriginal people on the same percentages as our population, we’d be saving something like $600 million per year. So I think it’s attractive for state governments, particularly, who are always crying broke, that they should look at why they’re incarcerating people and look at not incarcerating people who don’t need to be incarcerated.”

According to the AHRC, research indicates that a “tipping point” may occur in communities once crime and incarceration reaches a certain point.

“High rates of imprisonment break down the social and family bonds that guide individuals away from crime, remove adults who would otherwise nurture children, deprive communities of income, reduce future income potential, and engender a deep resentment toward the legal system,” said the commission’s submission to the Senate committee.

“As a result, as communities become less capable of managing social order through family or social groups, crime rates go up.”

Mr Gooda said things would get to a point where people basically said, “enough, we’ve got to do something” and he believed many communities were at or near that point now.

He said that, while the states and territories had responsibility for their respective criminal justice systems, the Commonwealth could and should show leadership on justice reinvestment.

Koori Mail  

Next article – A worker’s glossary for Wayne’s budget

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