By MARTY MCCARTHY
“It’s a lot cheaper to keep Aboriginal people out of jail rather than in jail, it’s as simple as that.”
But despite what Neil Gillespie, the outspoken former head of the Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement and other legal professionals across Australia say, governments across Australia continue to ignore this.
Mr Gillespie says incarcerating Indigenous people in attempt to reduce Aboriginal crime is not a solution to the problem and if governments had a deeper knowledge of Indigenous issues they’d be able to recognise this.
“Unfortunately governments are not listening to Aboriginal people or Aboriginal organisations,” Mr Gillespie says.
“They seem to have these policy advisors that are non-Aboriginal and have never been out in the real world. They’re stuck in Canberra. They don’t visit Aboriginal people or organizations. They don’t travel around the country nearly enough to understand the plight of Aboriginal people.”
And the figures support what Mr Gillespie has to say.
As of June 2010, almost 7600 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were in jail – almost a quarter of Australia’s prison population. Of these, 92 per cent were male.
Furthermore, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, while the national imprisonment rate reduced by two per cent between 2010 and 2011 (the first fall in a decade), the Indigenous prison population grew by one per cent.
The national president of the Australian Lawyers Alliance, Greg Barns, agrees with Mr Gillespie that preventing Indigenous crime rather than simply punishing offenders will have long-term benefits in reducing the level of Indigenous incarceration in Australia.
He says this is something federal, state and territory governments need to understand.
“In Western Australia, in the Northern Territory, in Queensland [and in] most states of Australia we have seen a law and order push by elements of the media and some members of the community, driven by conservative politicians [and] it has meant locking up more and more [Indigenous] people,” Mr Barns says.
“It is unconscionable for a country to have so many people of one particular race or ethnic group in prison at those rates.”
The head lawyer of the Aboriginal Legal Services WA, Peter Collins, agrees too much emphasis has been placed in the past on the punishment of Indigenous offenders. He says the concept of deterrence as a correctional tool does not apply to Indigenous people and communities.
“I think the whole notion of deterrence needs to be reexamined,”MrCollinssays. “The notion presumes that if you send someone to jail that somehow or another that process of imprisonment is going to deter likeminded people within the community from committing offences.”
“That presupposes that the community out there who is supposed to be generally deterred is aware of the offences imposed and has the capacity to be able to make judgments based on those sentences.
“Now that just doesn’t happen in Aboriginal communities. For all sorts of reasons the message just doesn’t filter through.”
Mr Collins says most of his clients offend spontaneously and therefore do not consider the legal ramifications before committing a crime. This is because many Indigenous offences involve spur of the moment decisions resulting from drug or alcohol abuse or from a mental illness or person crisis.
InWestern Australia80 per cent of jailed Indigenous youth reoffend and 70 per cent of adult Indigenous males reoffend. Mr Collins says these figures are evidence incarceration does not work as a deterrent for Indigenous offenders and therefore the correctional system needs to change its focus.
“I think the focus of the issues should be on [resolving] poor education outcomes, high rates of unemployment, high levels of drug and alcohol abuse, overcrowding housing, high rates of homelessness, over representation in the child protection system, high level of family dysfunction and loss of connection to community and culture,” he says.
“Those are the sorts of issues and realities for Aboriginal people that resources need to be directed at, rather than at the corrections end.
“If you do that I think you’ll get some outcomes in relation to reducing offending rates.”
Until this happens, Mr Collins says locking up more and more Indigenous people for crimes that are otherwise preventable will continue to damage the psyche of Indigenous communities.
“It [Indigenous incarceration] has a tremendously dislocating and disempowering effect on Aboriginal communities,” he says.
“The notion of someone being locked up and the damaging effect on someone being locked up…is completely underestimated and accepted as the norm.
“You end up with generations of people who are in prison. So their capacity for work, their capacity to be responsible family members and the connection between themselves, their family and their children and culture is completely cut off.”
It is for these reasons that Mr Collins says the idea that jailing offenders is as a solution to reducing Indigenous incarceration in Australia needs to change.
“The whole notion of jail as a rehabilitation tool is illusory – jail does not rehabilitate people and the statistics bear that out.”
“Jail doesn’t make it better, it makes it worse.”