Time to make reducing shameful Indigenous prison rates

a national priority

The Law Society of NSW has backed calls for action from Commonwealth, State and Territory Governments to address the over-representation of Indigenous people in the criminal justice system.

The call comes on the one-year anniversary of the release of the Australian Law Reform Commission’s Pathways to Justice -Inquiry into the Incarceration Rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples which contained key recommendations for all levels of government.

To date, neither the Australian Government, nor State and Territory Governments have formally responded to the Pathways to Justice Report (released on 28 March 2018) which provides a blueprint to address the over-representation of indigenous people in our prisons.

According to NSW Law Society President, Elizabeth Espinosa, Indigenous people make up only 2.9 per percent of the population in NSW, but 24.2 per cent of the NSW adult prison population.

“Between 2001 and 2015, the number of Indigenous Australians in NSW prisons more than doubled, which, according to the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, is due to a combination of tougher sentencing and law enforcement,” she said.

“Of great concern is the disproportionately high number of Indigenous women in our state’s prisons and the fact that 80% of Indigenous women prisoners are mothers.

“More so when we know that the incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mothers is a key driver in the removal of Indigenous children from their homes.”

Ms Espinosa said the Law Society of NSW supports calls from the Law Council of Australia for the Commonwealth Government to respond to the ALRC Report recommendations for addressing the systemic challenges driving the nation’s overwhelming rates of Indigenous incarceration.

“The Commonwealth Government must set out its response, including increased funding, but there are also actions the NSW and other state and territory governments can take.”

Ms Espinosa said innovative solutions are needed to address the underlying causes of Indigenous incarceration and offending, in line with the recommendations from the ALRC Report.

The Law Society of NSW is calling on the NSW Government to work in partnership with appropriate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations and experts to:

  • Establish and properly resource a specialised Indigenous sentencing court known as the Walama Court. Indigenous offenders make up one third of the sentencing work of the District Court of NSW and a specialised Indigenous sentencing court could play a significant role in diverting Indigenous offenders from custody into community-based programs.
  • Continue support for place-based justice reinvestment projects like the Maranguka Justice Reinvestment Project in Bourke, in north-western NSW.
  • Provide increased, long-term funding for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (ATSILS) and Community Legal Centres, which are under-resourced, vastly overstretched and struggling to meet demand for criminal, family, care and protection and civil matters. When civil matters – including for credit, debt, consumer and housing matters – are left unresolved there is a real risk these life challenges can escalate into more serious criminal matters.
  • Work with the Commonwealth to develop and adopt state and Commonwealth justice, family violence and care and protection targets, informed by the evidence that shows these issues are linked.

“The disproportionate and escalating rate of Indigenous incarceration is shameful,” Ms Espinosa said.

“This is a national crisis that requires a comprehensive response from all levels of government, underpinned by Indigenous community empowerment and principles of self-determination.

“The over-incarceration of Indigenous people contributes significantly to the high mortality rate of our nation’s first people.

“Research indicates that high rates of repeated short-term incarceration experienced by Aboriginal people in Australia have a multitude of negative health effects for Indigenous communities and the wider society.

“Furthermore, the incarceration of Indigenous adults also impacts on their families and communities, potentially placing Indigenous children at an increased risk of being placed in care and protection.”