While Australia’s progress on Closing the Gap is tragically going backwards, data from NSW shows that the Coalition has overseen a 35% increase in the Aboriginal prison population since it came to power in 2011. Not only have the absolute numbers of Aboriginal people in jail gone up but, appallingly, so has the proportion of Aboriginal people in NSW jails.
It’s a record, but not one to be proud of: one in four prisoners in NSW jails are Indigenous, a statistic that has risen by 35 per cent since the Coalition government came to power in 2011.
The Minister for Corrections David Elliott conceded “it is a tragedy”. Aboriginal and Torres Strait islanders represented 24 per cent of the prison population in October 2016, up from 22 per cent in March 2011.
That means the NSW justice system is imprisoning Indigenous people at 11.3 times the rate of non-Indigenous people.
Legal advocates say a mix of tougher bail laws, racial prejudice, better detection methods and under investment in diversionary programs is contributing to the problem, while the Greens blame the major parties’ “law and order auctions” as politicians compete to look tough on crime.
Upper house MP David Shoebridge from the Greens said police discretionary powers such as consorting laws, move on powers and public order offences are disproportionately applied to Indigenous people.
David’s adjournment speech in Parliament:
Just a few weeks the Minister for Corrections said that “incarceration rates should not be necessarily things that we need to look at through the prism of the colour of someone’s skin or their religion” and that having anybody incarcerated was a tragedy. The real tragedy is that the Minister refuses to acknowledge that the NSW criminal justice system is systematically failing our first peoples.
When the Coalition was elected in 2011, there were 2,269 people in NSW custody who identified as Aboriginal Australians. Today there are 3,059. Any government that oversees a criminal justice system that puts 35 per cent more Aboriginal people in jail than when it came into office needs to take a good hard look at itself.
Not only has the absolute number of Aboriginal people in jail increased; so has the proportion of Aboriginal people in jail. Now nearly one-quarter of all adult prisoners in NSW identify as Aboriginal. In the juvenile justice system the situation is even worse with more than 53 per cent of those detainees in the juvenile justice system identifying as Aboriginal. When the Indigenous population of Australia is only 2.5 per cent of the overall population, it is impossible not to recognise that this is an issue of race.
Our justice system is currently imprisoning adult Aboriginal people at more than 11 times the rate of non-Aboriginal people. Aboriginal people are more likely to be recognised as offenders, more likely to be convicted and more likely to serve a custodial sentence than their non-Aboriginal counterparts.
This pattern of undeniable racial prejudice in NSW has been fostered by successive governments, both Labor and the Coalition. When we look at the period between 2006 and 2016, a period of both Labor and Coalition governments, we see that the prison population as a whole grew by 13 per cent, but the Aboriginal prison population grew by 31 per cent. There are a number of reasons for this: aggressive and discretionary policing, higher sentencing rates and a higher rate of bail refusal for Aboriginal people. An expansion of police discretionary powers, alongside more aggressive policing, has removed many of the safeguards in our criminal justice system.
Supported by a legislative trust in gut-instinct policing, NSW police are targeting and arresting Aboriginal Australians at a rate far above that of their non-Aboriginal counterparts. We know that once an Aboriginal person enters the criminal justice system they are more likely to be convicted, they are more likely to be given a custodial sentence, their custodial sentence is likely to be longer than those given to their non‑Aboriginal counterparts and they are far more likely to be refused bail. And yet here in NSW we have a Coalition Government, a Minister for Corrections in particular, that remain in denial and determined to stand by that denial of racism in the system.
Justice reinvestment—the redirection of money spent on prisons to community-based initiatives, which aims to address the underlying causes of crime—is being touted around the world as a viable and effective solution to traditional prison management strategies. But in NSW diversionary options remain extremely limited, especially in regional and remote areas that are home to so many Aboriginal communities. As we know, convictions for minor offences are rising, with 95 per cent of Aboriginal prisoners serving sentences of fewer than two years. A pilot program of justice reinvestment is being implemented at Bourke in north-west NSW where there is a focus on the prevention of crime through education and social services funding, and it is community directed. But a one-off pilot project will not fix this issue; it needs a consistent two-pronged approach that winds back discretionary police powers and stops making mistakes—like the $3.8 billion committed to additional jail cells and some 7,000 new prison beds, which is the government’s only response to the issue.
This is a cycle that is worsening, and if the NSW justice system keeps doing what it is doing and continues a business-as-usual approach then we will lose another generation of Aboriginal Australians. This becomes crushingly obvious when we turn our gaze to the juvenile justice system—where young Aboriginal Australians represent some 53 per cent of those in detention. Our first peoples need a Minister for Corrections who understands the issues facing their community. Minister Elliott says that he will ensure that everyone will “get every opportunity to be rehabilitated”. But what that seems to include is an appalling opportunity for too many Aboriginal Australians to be in jail in the first place when they need rehabilitation.
With the focus perpetually set on jail and punishment, at the cost of crucial preventative measures, the Coalition is entrenching Aboriginal overrepresentation in our criminal justice system. Fixing this requires a
fundamental change in the government’s approach to criminal justice. But we will never get to that point or even approach it when we have a Minister who stubbornly refuses to see the undeniable fact of racial bias in our criminal justice system against our first peoples.