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Justice for our first people

Justice for our first people

The fourth anniversary of the Intervention coincided with the release of a damning report into the rates of incarceration for Indigenous youth. Justin Whealing reports on the latest…

The fourth anniversary of the Intervention coincided with the release of a damning report into the rates of incarceration for Indigenous youth. Justin Whealing reports on the latest recommendations to improve Indigenous access to justice.

Despite numerous Royal Commissions, the spending of billions of dollars and even the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act in the case of the Northern Territory Intervention, the health and incarceration rates for Aboriginal people has not improved.

Speaking on the fourth anniversary of the Northern Territory Emergency Response (the Intervention) on 21 June, a move which has polarised politicians and Indigenous communities, the Social Justice Commissioner, Mick Gooda, said he would like to see

Aboriginal people consulted more when politicians make decisions that affect their future.

"We need to listen to mums and dads, the young people and the elders, the remote communities and the Town Campers in Alice Springs"

Mick Gooda, Social Justice Commissioner

"We need to listen to mums and dads, the young people and the elders, the remote communities and the Town Campers in Alice Springs," he said.

Gooda added that while the Intervention had some benefits, its measures - which banned pornography and alcohol and compulsorily acquired land and managed the income of Indigenous people in 73 prescribed communities - hurt Aboriginal people as they were treated differently from other Australians.

"Painting everyone in the community with the same brush is neither helpful, nor fair - particularly to those many people doing the right thing," he said. The Intervention is due to finish next August.

In the same week that the Indigenous community reflected on the Intervention, a report into Indigenous youth in the criminal justice system was released on 20 June.

The results of 'Doing Time - Time for Doing' - the inquiry into Indigenous youth in the criminal justice system - was tabled in Parliament by the seven-member House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs.

The Committee pulled no punches in releasing its findings, describing the rate of Indigenous youth in Australian prisons as being 'in crisis'.

The report found that Aboriginal youth are 28 times more likely to be incarcerated as compared to non-Aboriginal youth, and described the overrepresentation of Indigenous juveniles in jails as being worse now than it was 20 years ago - when the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody report was completed.

When speaking to Lawyers Weekly in April to mark that anniversary, Gooda said that the Royal Commission had failed Aboriginal people.

"The Commission found that Aboriginal people died in jail at a disproportionate rate because they are in jail at a disproportionate rate, and addressed the underlying issues about why Aboriginal people went to jail," said Gooda at the time. "Given there are a whole lot more people in jail now than in 1991, there was a common agreement that the implementation of the recommendations of the Commission had failed."

The most recent Parliamentary Report agrees with that basic premise, and makes 40 recommendations to attempt to redress the imbalance between Indigenous and non- Indigenous incarceration rates.

These include the creation of an Indigenous Law and Justice Advisory Body, alternative sentencing options, improving interpreting and legal services for Indigenous youth and strengthening positive social norms through families, communities, mentoring and sport and recreation.

The Law Council of Australia (LCA) president Alex Ward welcomed such recommendations, and said it was time to end 'tough on crime' style policies with regard to Indigenous offenders.

'The rate of Indigenous incarceration is going up, it hasn't worked,' said Ward when talking of past and current policies. "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?

"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."

Gooda and other bodies, such as the Australian Human Rights Commission, have called for a re-think about the operation of rehabilitation programs. In particular, he 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 is something that Ward also believes authorities should look at.

"If you are spending money on improving society, so that person feels they have a place in society, they are much less likely to go out and break the law,' he said. 'It is very important that policies look at how to stop people from getting into the justice system."

The LCA recently announced it would create an Indigenous Law Student of the Year prize, with the recipient to receive $2500 to further their studies. The LCA already recognises Indigenous lawyers with the Indigenous Legal Professional of the Year Award.

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Justice for our first people
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