Aboriginal imprisonment rates jump in Victoria prompting calls for ‘justice reinvestment’ trials

A recent report by the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows Victoria has seen one of the largest jumps in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander imprisonment rates in the country.

Aboriginal people in Victoria are locked up at 11 times the rate of the non-Aboriginal population. Aboriginal people comprise approximately eight percent of the prison population, yet less than one percent of the general Victorian population.

Senior Lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre, Ruth Barson, said that while the new Victorian Government had inherited an unprecedented crisis in prisoner numbers, it had an opportunity to introduce better justice policies that do not disproportionately impact Aboriginal people.

“Aboriginal over-imprisonment is not just a problem in remote Australia. These latest statistics confirm that it is equally important for Victoria to find solutions to address this systemic injustice,” said Ms Barson.

Acting CEO of the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service, Meena Singh, said the Victorian Government should commit to reducing Aboriginal imprisonment rates by introducing ways to divert people away from the criminal justice system.

“There is a lack of regional diversionary programs for young people, particularly programs that are culturally appropriate and responsive to the needs of Aboriginal people. There needs to be proper consideration of the reasons behind why people are offending. The issues are complex and often can’t be dealt with by a prison sentence,” said Ms Singh.

Ms Singh called on the Victoria Government to use the Aboriginal Justice Forum to have real dialogue with community organisations.

“There are a number of expert, on-the-ground organisations with years of experience working with the Victorian Aboriginal community. Ultimately, communities know how best to address offending in ways that are culturally appropriate, therapeutic and provide long term impact. We urge the Victorian Government to think holistically and therapeutically about how to make real and positive change in our community,” said Ms Singh.

Ms Barson said that the Victorian Government should look to ‘justice reinvestment’ programs to address over-imprisonment. Justice reinvestment involves channeling some of the hundreds of millions 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. It attempts to treat the causes of crime, not the symptoms,” 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 and South Australia.

“Victoria’s justice system is at breaking point with growing prisoner numbers, growing prison costs, and growing reoffending rates. The Government has the tools to address this problem, it just needs the political will and determination to use them. At the very least the Government should commit to some trial programs,” said Ms Barson.

When Australia’s compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination was last reviewed by the United Nations, the expert committee specifically called for justice reinvestment trials to address Aboriginal over-imprisonment.

For further information or comments, please contact:
Ruth Barson, Senior Lawyer at the Human Rights Legal Centre on 0417 773 037 or via ruth.barson@hrlc.org.au
Meena Singh, Acting CEO of the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service, 0438 599 389