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Issue #1730      May 11, 2016

Royal Commission 25 years on

Call for unified approach

Aboriginal, legal and social justice organisations have all used the 25th anniversary of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody to call for a nationally coordinated approach to reducing Indigenous incarceration.

National Convenor of the Family Violence Prevention Legal Services Forum Antoinette Braybrook called Indigenous imprisonment rates a national crisis.

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women make up 2% of the national population, but are more than one-third of the female prison population and are the fastest growing prisoner population,” she said.

“More than 80% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in prison are mothers and 87% victims of sexual, physical or emotional abuse.

“As Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women face spiralling imprisonment rates, they are also confronted by a national family violence crisis.”

NSW/ACT Aboriginal Legal Service (ALS) chief executive Gary Oliver recalled the words of Royal Commissioner Hal Wootten. “The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was set up very hastily ... We ended up being set up to investigate the wrong question … The question we were set to investigate was really, were police and prison officers killing Aboriginals, and the real question was why were so many Aboriginal people being put in jail,” Judge Wootten said in 2012.

Oliver said that in NSW, Aboriginal people made up some 30% in prisons and juvenile detention centres, and nearly 20% in prisons and detention centres in the ACT.

“These statistics are concerning given the steady decrease in crime rates over the past 20 years,” he said. “Even more concerning considering the statistics are at odds with one of the key recommendations of the Royal Commission, that imprisonment be a last resort.

Several options

“If we look at young people, there are a number of options available to police to ensure that arrest is the last resort. That includes cautions, warnings, cooling off periods, infringement notices and the ability to present a CAN (court attendance notice) in the field.

“And yet Aboriginal kids continue to be taken into police custody for matters which do not warrant custodial penalties. In NSW detention centres, more than half the kids are Aboriginal.

“The hyper-incarceration of black people not only in NSW, but across the country, suggests the lessons from the Royal Commission have not been learnt.

“Aboriginal people across the state and country are more visible to police. As Pat Dodson says, they’re more likely to be stopped, more likely to be arrested, more likely to be charged, and more likely to go to jail. This suggests legislators have not learnt from the past.

“Just the other day, in front of one of our 23 offices, six uniformed and undercover police stopped an Aboriginal young man, searched him, and finally told him to ‘move on.’”

Oliver said Indigenous and community legal services were being “bled of funding”.

“Next year alone, the Australian government is reducing the ALS budget by some $1.028 million, a drop of 6%,” he said. “That’s a loss of key staff from the frontline and we estimate 4,800 Aboriginal men, women and children will miss out on legal assistance.

“ALS was established in 1970 by Aboriginal people to ensure representation before the courts as a direct response to ongoing, targeted and indiscriminate police harassment of individuals.

“If funding is withdrawn, the potential loss of frontline positions may exacerbate the already grave problem of Aboriginal overrepresentation in custody.

“The Custody Notification Service (CNS) was a recommendation of the Royal Commission and it has been doing the job. This is evidenced by the fact there have been no Aboriginal deaths in police cell custody in NSW since the ALS Custody Notification Service – a 24-hour phone line providing early legal advice and a welfare check – began.

“But what about the other recommendations not yet implemented?

“Aspects of the recommendations have been picked up, but on the whole they have not been introduced systemically across all jurisdictions.

“For example, the decriminalisation of minor offences, which include public drunkenness (Recommendation 79), offensive language (Recommendation 86), and fine default (Recommendations 120 & 121).

“We need to rethink our law and order and particularly policing models and invest in local communities where crime is occurring, fast.

“Our backing of a justice reinvestment trial in Bourke is one way we hope to help convince governments the current approach is just not working.

Fearful

“We are incredibly fearful for our children, and what the future may hold as more and more of them are taken out of society and locked behind bars.”

NSW Aboriginal Land Council chair Roy Ah-See said it was obvious the current system had failed.

“It’s time for policy-makers to concede that the system is fundamentally broken and to work in genuine partnership with Aboriginal people and organisations on community-centred alternatives to prison,” he said.

“This includes policies and programs based on justice reinvestment where power is devolved at the local level to invest in education, training, parole support, rehabilitation and community-driven courts.”

Koori Mail

Next article – Government aims at bleak future for unions

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