Australian governments have a historic opportunity to turn the tide on inequality 

Australian governments have a historic opportunity to turn the tide on inequality 

Australian governments must work together with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and organisations to address one of the most significant human rights issues in Australia – the over-imprisonment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. A new report by the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) outlines clear steps that governments must take to fix inequality and discrimination in the justice system.

Shahleena Musk, Senior Lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre, said that there must be cultural transformation of our criminal justice systems, and that Australian governments should do away with laws that discriminate against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

"A person’s background should never impair their freedom or dictate how they are treated in our society. Prime Minister Turnbull and leaders around Australia should today commit to implementing the report’s recommendations, and once and for all end the harm caused by the over-imprisonment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait peoples," said Ms Musk.

The ALRC inquiry was called by the former Attorney General, George Brandis, to provide solutions to the 'national tragedy' of the over-imprisonment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ across Australia. The ALRC examined 'laws, frameworks and institutions and broader factors that contribute to this tragedy'.

Ms Musk said that the ALRC report demonstrates that our criminal justice systems are out of balance and weighted far too heavily towards locking people up.

"Right now men, women and children are being hurt by an unfair justice system – mothers are being separated from their families and communities are being torn apart by a short sighted culture of locking people up. The ALRC report lays out a clear path towards fairer and justice systems, our politicians just need the resolve to walk it," said Ms Musk

The ALRC report made 35 comprehensive recommendations, including to:

  • abolish mandatory sentencing;
  • stop imprisoning people for unpaid fines;
  • set criminal justice targets, federally and in every state and territory;
  • fix bail and sentencing laws so that a person’s cultural experience can be taken into account; and
  • increase access to culturally appropriate community based alternatives.

Ms Musk said that many of the recommendations can be implemented immediately.

"There is no room for mandatory sentencing in a modern and fair justice system. Every single government in Australia can today choose to cut the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people being forced into prison by wiping these unfair laws from their statute books," said Ms Musk.

"Four years ago, Ms Dhu, a young Yamatji woman, died in police custody because she couldn’t pay some fines. Today, politicians continue to put peoples’ lives at risk by misusing prisons and unnecessarily locking up vulnerable people. Nobody should be locked up simply because they are poor," said Ms Musk.

The Human Rights Law Centre made a submission to the ALRC inquiry, which focused on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in the criminal justice system. Women’s imprisonment rates across Australia have soared in recent years – governments 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.

"Governments around Australia continue to make decisions that are seeing vulnerable women imprisoned instead of given a helping hand. This is leading to profound upheaval – broken families, children moved into child protection, and the loss of housing and employment. We should be offering women support in the community, not locking them away in dead-end jails," said Ms Musk.

Download a copy of the HRLC submission here
Download Over-represented and overlooked: the crisis of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women’s growing over-imprisonment, HRLC and Change the Record report

For interviews or further information please call:

Michelle Bennett, Director of Communications, Human Rights Law Centre, 0419 100 519