The United Nation’s Human Rights Council – the world’s peak human rights body – has been alerted to Australia’s rapidly increasing imprisonment rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
The Human Rights Law Centre has lodged a statement to the 27th session of the Human Rights Council currently underway in Geneva calling on the Council to urge Australia to take effective steps to address the social crisis of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ high imprisonment rates.
The HRLC’s Senior Lawyer, Ruth Barson, said successive Australian governments have failed to address the socio-economic reasons that lead to a disproportionate number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people being caught up in the criminal justice system.
“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are one of the most incarcerated groups in the world and statistics released just last week highlight, not just the depth of the problem, but that it is getting worse,” said Ms Barson.
Statistics released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics last week show that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ imprisonment increased 10% in just one year, contributing to an 86% rise across the last decade. Figures from 2013 show that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are 15 times more like to be in prison than other Australians.
“Successive Federal, state and territory governments have failed to tackle the underlying problems, such as over-crowded housing; high rates of family violence; unemployment; and lack of education opportunities. Fixing these problems will make communities safer and cut imprisonment rates. Unfortunately, governments seem keener to chase quick fixes and harsher punishment policies that are often costly, harmful and ineffective,” said Ms Barson.
Australia is due to be reviewed by the Human Rights Council next year as part of a four yearly process known as the Universal Periodic Review. Australia is also preparing to campaign for a seat on the Human Rights Council in 2018.
“Given Australia wants to join the Human Rights Council, it should work to improve its own human rights record by funding and implementing what we know will work to make communities safer and reduce the appalling number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people being locked up and removed from family, community and culture,” said Ms Barson.
The statement also raises the ongoing issue of Aboriginal deaths in custody, and the failure of governments to fully implement the recommendations made in 1991 by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.
“That a 22 year old West Australian Aboriginal woman recently died in a police watch house after being detained for unpaid fines is a tragedy that was surely avoidable, and it is right that Australia be scrutinized at the UN for allowing things like this to happen. Our system isn’t working and it needs to be fixed,” said Ms Barson.
The statement asks the Human Rights Council to urge Australia to commit to ongoing funding for essential, culturally relevant services; and to develop ‘justice targets’ to reduce the over-imprisonment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Ms Barson also said that ‘justice reinvestment’ approaches to tackling crime – which redirect prison spending to community-based initiatives that reduce crime and strengthen communities – are producing encouraging results in the USA and should be adopted in Australia.
For further information, please contact:
Ruth Barson, HRLC Senior Lawyer on 0417773037