Law Council of Australia (LCA) president Alex Ward has said the "tough on crime" approach to Indigenous justice is not working.
Speaking to Lawyers Weekly in response to the Doing Time - Time for Doing report into Indigenous youth in the criminal justice system that was tabled in Parliament this week, Ward said that politicians that advocate punitive punishments are not aiding measures to reduce Indigenous incarceration rates.
"The rates of Indigenous incarceration are going up, it hasn't worked," said Ward. "When you have dreadful situations such as when older men would get young Aboriginal children hooked on petrol, and then sexually abuse them in return for petrol, and that six to eight year-old girl steals a car at 14, then what did you expect?" asks Ward. "She has apparently turned her back on society as a 14 year-old, but we turned our back on her as a six year old.
"Tough on crime sounds good and wins elections, but it just doesn't work for Indigenous people."
The Doing Time - Time for Doing report was conducted by the seven member Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs. It described the rate of Indigenous youth in Australian prisons as being "a national crisis". The report found that Aboriginal youth are 28 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-Aboriginal youth.
Ward said that the LCA agreed with a number of the Committee's 40 recommendations - in particular, the establishment of an Indigenous Law and Justice Advisory Body, cultural awareness and diversion training for police and providing Aboriginal communities with improved access to health and education facilities.
"The work that needs to be done (to reduce incarceration rates) is to look at the social situation," said Ward. "That needs to be improved, and younger people need to be shown a model that demonstrates that you can be empowered and get ahead through education... rather then letting them lose their way."
Ward also called for more emphasis on rehabilitation services, in order to stop detention facilities becoming "criminal factories".
Ward said the LCA was regularly in contact with Indigenous groups in order to help frame its policies. He also told Lawyers Weekly that next month, the LCA would be holding a forum on the issue of constitutional recognition in the Constitution. Confirmed speakers at the forum include Michael Kirby, Aboriginal leaders Pat Dodson and Mick Dodson and Jody Broun, the Aboriginal artist and former director general of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs in NSW.
In November last year, prime minister Julia Gillard announced there will be a referendum to recognise Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders in the Australian Constitution either before or at the next Federal Election.