If I were the Federal Attorney-General, I would immediately take steps to ensure that the justice system in Australia move towards prevention and diversion, rather than continuing to place the majority of its funds in helping people at the last call, just before they are imprisoned, in the field of criminal law. I would recognise that prevention is better than cure and adopt Justice Reinvestment initiatives throughout Australia through the Standing Committee of Attorney Generals. We know this approach has worked in the USA and that, before long, the economic savings, as well as the creation of safer communities would be felt by all.
I would urge State and Territory Governments to work in partnership with their Corrective Services Departments to immediately undertake step one of Justice Reinvestment (mapping), which asks: Where do the offenders come from? Where did they commit their offending? And most importantly, why did they commit those offences? Armed with this knowledge and evidence of high risk communities, I would ensure that targeted programs be implemented into those communities, in partnership with the affected communities.
I would acknowledge that an aspect of our system of government that makes Australia so great is the strong civil society participation and non-governmental organisation (NGO) sector. Although I know that increasing strength and funding to the NGO sector may cause some discomfort for the Australian Government, I also know that in the end, it would make for a better society and reflect well on Australia locally, nationally and internationally.
I would put ‘tough on crime’ state Attorneys General on notice that unless they moved also towards prevention and diversion, worked seriously to reduce incarceration and started assisting to fund the legal NGO sector, rather than leaving it up to the Commonwealth, that their Council of Australian Governments (COAG) funding would be seriously under threat.
With the savings that stem from Justice Reinvestment and investment by States and Territories in the NGO sector, I would work to ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (ATSILSs), Family Violence Prevention Legal Services (FVPLSs) and Community Legal Centres (CLCs) received increased funding to allow their staff to be paid at rates equivalent to those in the Legal Aid Commissions. The continuing underfunding of these services is in breach of our international obligations.
I would also ensure that the epidemic overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the justice system of Australia is urgently addressed in a strategic manner. Rather than merely creating aspirational documents such as the National Indigenous Law and Justice Framework, I would ensure the framework has a budget and implementation strategy attached to it and push for justice to be incorporated into the COAG ‘Close the Gap’ strategy. In essence, I would move away from rhetoric and into action.
High numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and children reside in our capital cities and there are copious barriers to them accessing mainstream legal services. I would ensure therefore ensure that FVPLSs are funded to represent Indigenous victims of violence in large urban areas and provide them with funding for a national secretariat with a mandate to work on community legal education and policy and law reform at state, national and international levels.
In regards to the ATSILS, I would reconsider the current restructure being enforced on them. Whilst on the face of it, the inclusion of the previously separately funded policy, law reform and community legal education programs into the ATSILS main grant seemed like a windfall for these programs and recognition of the good work being undertaken by them, by incorporating them into the main grants, they are likely to then be given lower standing within the ATSILS, who struggle day to day to deal with the onslaught of Indigenous peoples charged with criminal offences.
I would also significantly reform the Indigenous Prisoner Through Care Program including moving away from the onerous reporting obligations, annual unsecured funding and have the sense to liaise with State and Territory corrections departments to work in partnership with them, rather than setting it up to fail. I would also extend the program to allow organisations funded by it to provide advocacy for prisoners as well as through care.
Whilst we’re on the topic of Indigenous incarceration, I would call for an immediate review of the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and ask for a ‘please explain’ from each State and Territory as to why recommendations had not been implemented, and then work to finally implement them. One of the main calls from the Royal Commission was for Australia to take a holistic view to justice that appreciates the inter-relation between poverty, education, housing, police relations, health and other social factors with the legal system.
In this vein, I would recognise, that within the ATSILSs, FVPLSs, CLCs and Legal Aid Commissions, the work of civil law, family law, coronial inquests, community legal education and policy and law reform are just as if not more important than criminal law for they work on the basis of prevention rather than a band aid at the end.
I would also recognise the importance of international advocacy by legal NGOs and reward rather than penalise those who keep Australia accountable. I would understand than rather than their advocacy reflecting badly on Australia, that the strong civil society participation is viewed positively.
I would work hard to address recommendations made by United Nations bodies in relation to law and justice, including the recommendations of the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Universal Periodic Review, Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and so on.
I would urge Australia to immediately ratify and implement the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture and set up a National Preventative Mechanisms within Australia to ensure that the human rights and dignity of people in detention are adhered to and that appropriate support be given to such people.
Finally, I would engage heavily in the current campaign underway for Constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and push for a general guarantee of equality to be included into the Constitution, which would give all Australians a Constitutional mechanism to challenge any laws, policies or practices which unfairly discriminate against them.
Tammy Solonec is a Nyikina Woman from the Kimberley of WA. She is a Solicitor with the Aboriginal Legal Service of Western Australia and a Director of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples.