The over-imprisonment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women is a growing national crisis that is being overlooked by all levels of government in Australia, the Human Rights Law Centre and Change the Record said in a new report to be launched today.
The imprisonment rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women has skyrocketed 148 per cent since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women make up around 34 per cent of the female prison population but only 2 per cent of the adult female population.
The report, Over-represented and overlooked: the crisis of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women’s growing over-imprisonment, calls for system-wide change and outlines 18 recommendations to redress racialised and gendered justice system outcomes.
Antoinette Braybrook, Co-Chair of the Change the Record Coalition and Convener of the National Family Violence Prevention Legal Services Forum, said, “For too long our women have been ignored by policy-makers. It is time for governments at all levels to put Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women experiences and voices front and centre, and listen to what we have to say about the solutions.”
“The report highlights the importance of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women having access to specialist, holistic and culturally safe services and supports that address the underlying causes of imprisonment,” said Ms Braybrook.
“Experiences of family violence contribute directly and indirectly to women’s offending”, added Ms Braybrook. “If we are to see women’s offending rates drop, governments must invest in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations that work with our women to stop violence.”
Adrianne Walters, Director of Legal Advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre said, “The tragic and preventable death of Ms Dhu is a devastating example of what happens when the justice system fails Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women. Ms Dhu was locked up under draconian laws that see Aboriginal women in WA disproportionately 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.”
Annette Vickery, Deputy CEO of the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service, said, “The vast majority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in custody are mothers. While Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are often in custody for short periods, even a short time can cause devastating and long term upheaval – children taken into child protection, stable housing lost, employment denied.
“Governments should be doing everything they can to help women avoid prison to prevent the devastating rippling effects of women’s imprisonment on children and families,” added Ms Vickery.
The report calls for governments to move away from ‘tough on crime’ approaches in reality and rhetoric, and to focus on evidence-based solutions that tackle drivers of offending and prevent women coming into contact with the justice system in the first place.
Ms Walters said, “Over-zealous policing and excessive police powers, driven by tough on crime politics, see too many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and men fined and locked up for minor offending. Only last month, the WA Coroner recommended the removal of police arrest and detention powers for public drinking after another Aboriginal woman died in police custody.”
“Governments can act now to remove laws that disproportionately and unfairly criminalise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, like fine default imprisonment laws in WA and paperless arrest laws in the NT," added Ms Walters
Ms Walters said, “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are also being denied bail and options to transition away from courts and prisons to more rehabilitative alternatives. Too often this is because of a lack of housing and programs designed for their social and cultural needs, particularly in regional and remote locations."
“Rather than enacting harsher laws and barriers to women accessing rehabilitative alternatives, governments must invest in programs that are designed for and by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and that tackle the root causes of offending," said Ms Walters.
Response from contributor to the report, Vickie Roach
Vickie Roach, a former prisoner turned writer and advocate, said, “Punitive approaches don’t work for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women. They punish our women, their families and communities, for actions that are often the consequence of forced child removal and assimilation policies.”
“Governments should be getting rid of laws that unfairly criminalise our women. They should be trying to close prisons and focusing on alternatives that are healing. You need to respect women’s dignity, but in my experience, so often the criminal justice system just takes it away,” added Ms Roach.