Governments should work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to reverse growing imprisonment rates

Australia should remove all barriers to fair and equal justice, the Human Rights Law Centre has told the Australian Law Reform Commission ‘Inquiry into Incarceration Rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’.

Adrianne Walters, Director of Legal Advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre, said that state and territory criminal justice systems are out of balance and that governments around Australia have a responsibility to work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities to stem the number of people being sent to prison.

“Australia is cramming more and more people into dead-end prisons. Governments must act now to scrap unfair laws that discriminate against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. We should be investing in community-run programs that ensure people to stop offending and that help create harmonious and healthier communities,” said Ms Walters.

The Human Rights Law Centre’s submission focused on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in the criminal justice system. Women’s imprisonment rates across Australia have soared in recent years and authorities are locking up Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women at 21 times the rate of non-Indigenous women. The majority are survivors of family and sexual violence and 80% are mothers.

“Locking up women destroys communities and causes long term upheaval – broken families, children moved into child protection, housing and employment loss. We should be helping not harming vulnerable women,” said Ms Walters.

“The tragic and preventable death of Ms Dhu is a devastating example of what happens when our governments permit unjust laws. Ms Dhu was put in police custody under laws that see Aboriginal women in WA unfairly locked up for fines they cannot pay. She was treated inhumanely by police and died in their care. At a time when she most needed help, the justice system punished her,” said Ms Walters.

The HRLC’s submission calls for a range of measures, including:

  • The introduction of a Human Rights Act to prevent injustices occurring in the first place;
  • Amending bail laws to reduce the number of people held on remand who have not yet been found guilty;
  • Ensuring sentencing is fairer by allowing courts to consider unique systemic and background factors when sentencing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander offenders;
  • Government accountability through the inclusion of justice targets as part of the Closing the Gap framework;
  • Developing tailored responses to the unique needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in prison; and
  • Abolishing unjust laws such as imprisonment in lieu of fine default, mandatory sentencing and paperless arrest laws.

Download a copy of the submission here.

Download Over-represented and overlooked: the crisis of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women’s growing over-imprisonment – our report with Change the Record.

For more information please contact: 

Michelle Bennett, Director of Communications, 0419 100 519