The latest Australian prison statistics released yesterday show the crisis of Indigenous imprisonment in Australia is getting worse.
The Human Rights Law Centre’s Senior Lawyer, Ruth Barson, said the figures, released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, should be a wake-up call for governments across Australia to abandon costly, punitive policies.
“The Indigenous imprisonment rate is a national crisis. We must take smarter action to address this inequality by addressing the causes of crime – not just the symptoms,” said Ms Barson.
Ms Barson urged governments to embrace proven approaches that prevent crime and lower prison rates.
“Programs like justice reinvestment have shown to reduce Indigenous imprisonment rates, keep the community safer and save taxpayer funds,” said Ms Barson.
The statistics confirm that overall, Indigenous people are locked up at 13 times the rate of non-Indigenous people. Indigenous people account for 28% of the total prisoner population, yet only 2% of the general population.
The statistics show that in the year to June 2015:
- Indigenous men’s imprisonment rose 5%;
- Indigenous women’s imprisonment rose 9%;
- Remand rates (people in prison waiting trial or sentence) increased 11%; and
- Total imprisonment (Indigenous and non-Indigenous) rose 6%.
“Indigenous women are the fastest growing prisoner demographic in Australia. These women are falling through the gaps. We need targeted, gender and culturally specific action to improve safety and to prevent the cycle of disadvantage,” said Ms Barson.
Executive Officer of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services, Eddie Cubillo, called on the Federal Government to commit to ‘justice targets’ which set benchmarks for reducing Indigenous imprisonment rates.
“The over-imprisonment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is an ongoing blight on Australia and the problem is getting worse. We need programs that are appropriate and responsive to the needs of Aboriginal people. Justice targets will ensure that Governments are accountable for addressing this issue. We must close this gap,” said Mr Cubillo.
NATSILS is also urging governments to focus on tackling the underlying social and economic reasons that generate crime.
“Too often we ignore proven, effective policies which improve community safety in favour of populist, blunt and often ineffective responses that see more and more Aboriginal people locked up,” said Mr Cubillo.
Justice reinvestment involves channeling some of the billions of dollars spent on prisons, into targeted community programs in high-need areas to address the underlying causes of offending.
“Justice reinvestment is an evidence-based approach that focuses resources on preventing crime instead of just responding after the damage is done,” said Ms Barson.
Justice reinvestment emerged out of traditionally punitive American states like Texas in response to ballooning prison populations and the associated costs. It has proven transformative in those places. It is now being trialed in NSW, Western Australia and South Australia.