A prominent Aboriginal leader has said that moves to reduce the numbers of Indigenous Australians in prisons had failed.
Speaking to Lawyers Weekly ahead of the 20th anniversary of the release of the findings of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody on Friday (15 April), Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda said that Aboriginal people were, in fact, more likely to go to gaol today than in 1991.
"The Commission found that Aboriginal people died in gaol at a disproportionate rate because they are in gaol at a disproportionate rate, and addressed the underlying issues about why Aboriginal people went to gaol," Gooda said. "Given there are a whole lot more people in gaol now than in 1991, there was a common agreement that the implementation of the recommendations of the Commission had failed."
The Commission was announced by Prime Minister Bob Hawke in 1987. It made a total of 339 recommendations that centred on procedures for persons in custody and liaison with Aboriginal groups.
Gooda was one of the speakers at a public forum in Redfern yesterday that marked the 20th anniversary of the Royal Commission.
Aboriginals make up around one quarter of Australia's prison population, despite making up less than 3 per cent of the general population.
In New South Wales, half of the children in juvenile detention are Aboriginal, and Indigenous Australians make up one third of children in state care.
Gary Olivier, the chair of the Aboriginal Legal Service, has called this "a crisis that can't be ignored any longer".
With such a high rate of incarceration, Gooda said that in many Aboriginal communities going to gaol is seen as a "right of passage". He acknowledged that attitudes within Aboriginal communities need to change, but also said the legal system and police attitudes also need to shift. He cited the charging of a 12-year-old Aboriginal boy in Western Australia in 2009, after he received a stolen chocolate frog, and the locking up of people for minor offences, as examples of "over-policing".
"In WA, lots of Aboriginal people are in gaol for traffic offences," Gooda said. "Is gaol a real option for the non-payment of fines?"
Gooda believes that such policies are often borne out of politicians breast beating about how tough they are on crime, and that such rhetoric does nothing to reduce crime or make communities safer.
"Every state election will degenerate into a law and order auction about who is tougher on crime," he said. "I make the point, and made it yesterday, that if gaoling people reduced crime, the USA would be the safest community in the world, because they gaol people at a higher rate than just about anyone else, but it isn't. "The evidence tells us that building more jails and filling them with people doesn't make communities safer. What makes them safer is stopping offending behaviour."
Gooda and other bodies, such as the Australian Human Rights Commission, have called for a re-think about the operation of rehabilitation programs around Australia. Gooda cites a program called "justice reinvestment", which diverts a portion of public funds that would have been spent on the cost of imprisonment into the community where the offender comes from. That money is then invested in local programs and infrastructure.
"This program talks about prison being the last resort rather than the first," said Gooda. "In Australia, we are currently building new gaols in northern Queensland and in the Northern Territory that will cost hundreds of millions of dollars, in both the capital costs and the operating costs.
"Is that money better invested in community initiatives that are specifically aimed at stopping offending behaviour?"
Gooda said that he and other Indigenous bodies would continue to advocate for the adoption of such polices in Australia.