This article was first published by The Canberra Times.
Locking up large numbers of indigenous people means more kids in care, more broken families, fewer people in jobs and fewer teenagers at school.
Indigenous people are one of the most imprisoned groups in the world, yet respective governments are wilfully blind when it comes to seeing prison as part of the cycle of indigenous poverty, ill health and disadvantage. The Australian Human Rights Commission last week called the over-imprisonment of indigenous people "one of the most urgent human rights issues facing Australia", while the Law Council of Australia called the issue "a national crisis".
It is time to adopt "justice targets" to force government accountability.
The recent Productivity Commission's "Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage" report shows that indigenous imprisonment rates have more than doubled in the past decade, while rates for non-indigenous Australians have remained relatively constant.
Despite this, Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion, has disappointingly said the government is unwilling to set justice targets and commit to reversing appallingly high indigenous imprisonment rates, despite his previous public support.
Justice targets involve all Australian governments setting measurable goals to reduce indigenous imprisonment rates – goals to which they will be held accountable. For example, the Close the Gap framework sets six ambitious targets, including to close the gap in life expectancy between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians within a generation. A justice target equivalent might be to close the gap in imprisonment rates within a decade.
Indigenous young people are 24 times more likely to be imprisoned than non-indigenous young people, and indigenous men are about 15 times more likely to be imprisoned than non-indigenous men. Perhaps even more alarming is the fact indigenous women are the fastest-growing prisoner demographic in Australia, with 18 per cent growth in the past 12 months. While indigenous women represent about 2 per cent of the general women's population, they are one third of the women's prison population.
The system isn't working and hasn't done so for a long time. Justice targets will force governments to be responsible for addressing the reasons why.
While Scullion is right in wanting to focus on the underlying causes of over-imprisonment, he has missed a beat in failing to see that prison itself is part of the cycle of disadvantage. In other words, locking more and more indigenous people up means more kids in care, more broken families, fewer people in jobs, fewer teenagers at school and more community upheaval.
Justice, health and well-being are inter-connected. National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services chairman Shane Duffy is right in arguing that other closing the gap targets relating to health outcomes are in jeopardy if over-imprisonment is not addressed.
While there is no silver bullet, there are discreet examples that we know work to reduce imprisonment rates – they are just not widely resourced or implemented. These programs could be expanded if governments were held accountable for the imprisonment gap.
For instance, Koori Courts in Victoria have had many positive evaluations, as has the Neighbourhood Justice Centre. Equally, specialist therapeutic courts such as drug courts have worked in many jurisdictions by creating community-based, supervised alternatives to imprisonment.
We look internationally and learn something as well. In the United States, "justice reinvestment" – which involves channelling funds from prisons to community-based services that address the underlying causes of offending – has a proven record in substantially reducing imprisonment rates in notoriously punitive states such as Texas.
Although none of these are cookie-cutter solutions, and while all require indigenous community buy-in, they do provide a good road map. Indeed, the evidence suggests these programs will work to keep communities safe and reduce imprisonment rates.
The problem is – with some notable exceptions – governments are not committed to resourcing these programs. When it comes to crime, politics seems to win out over evidence. Governments remain committed to beating the law-and-order drum – calling for harsher penalties and longer sentences – in a bid to win more votes. It does not seem to matter that taxpayers are getting very little return; estimates have the cost of imprisonment of indigenous people about $795 million a year.
This is why we need justice targets. They will ensure accountability. They will ensure governments are not beholden to the populist false economy of law-and-order politics. They will ensure governments listen to the evidence and fund what works when it comes to reducing imprisonment rates, increasing the well-being of indigenous people and keeping the community safe. You cannot close the gap when so many indigenous men, women and children are behind bars.
Ruth Barson is a senior lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre. She wrote this piece with input from the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services. She is on Twitter @RuthHRLC