A decision made by the High Court of Australia recently in the Bugmy vs The Queen marks a step towards reducing the number of Aboriginal Australians in prison. The court ruled that the experiences of aboriginal people must be considered before handing down sentences.
The Australian Institute of Criminology’s Deaths in custody in Australia to 30 June 2011 – Twenty years of monitoring by the National Deaths in Custody Program since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody states that ‘the proportion of prisoners that are Indigenous has almost doubled from 14% in 1991 to 26% in 2011’ (AIC 2013).
So what contributes to the over representation of Aboriginal Australians in our criminal justice system?
Mr Craig Longman a senior researcher at Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning at the University of Technology Sydney explains why aboriginal people are over represented in the criminal justice system.
Craig Longman: Indigenous people are over represented because at every level of the system there’s a prejudice against them.
Mr. Longman believes that the prejudice stems from the lack of understanding of aboriginal culture by the police and by the court.
Craig Longman: So for instance one of the things that both the police and the courts will immediately look to when they’re trying to decide whether to bail someone is whether they have a single address. It’s far more common especially for juvenile in aboriginal culture to live across addresses. This doesn’t result in any greater risk to the community in terms of reoffending. But courts don’t understand that it’s normal in that culture. So they refuse bail on that reason.
There is also cultural pressure in the aboriginal community that remains unsatisfied even after an offender within the community has served their time according to the legal system.
Craig Longman: So there are things like payback. If you commit an offence against a person in community that person family now has a cultural obligation to address that. There’s been massive fall out in communities and families having to leave communities because the incidents of fighting and payback were so high. That’s not addressed at all in the legal system.
Lack of or no support services also contributes to the over representation of aboriginal people in prison. Even though there are options within the system but without services they simply become redundant.
Craig Longman: There are series of options available for the magistrate prior to full time incarceration. And those options include things like diversionary programs where offenders who for instance have a drug and alcohol problem are diverted off into treatment programs. And if they complete those treatment programs their sentences are suspended or reduced. If you live in a community where there are no support services then the magistrate ,once he’s fined you a certain number of times, he’s next option is jail and so people end up in jail that our legal system says should not be there.
So what is needed to reduce the number of aboriginal people in prison?
Professor Shane Houston, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Indigenous Strategy and Services at the University of Sydney, stresses that better opportunity for aboriginal people is the the solution.
Shane Houston: Education services and the opportunity to be part of a functioning family, the opportunity to engage in meaningful employment, the ability to form lasting relationships within a family across a community are all important contributors to a person’s ability to be healthy. To see a future that is productive and functional are all important elements in diverting people from path ways that end up in the criminal justice system.
Collaboration is also a key factor to address the issue.
Shane Houston: Children support, family support sevices have to work with the health and the education sector. This is not something that you can lay at the feet of state and territory governments alone. It’s something that the commonwealth government and state and territory governments need to collaborate on.
Previous and current government policies such as the Northern Territory Intervention have included the police to work with aboriginal community but it is not without a challenge.
Shane Houston: There is a challenge for us to work with police to help them develop knowledge and practices which allow them to ensure that they pay attention to aboriginal people is related to the circumstances not because of a series of pre-determined stereotypes.
Reviewed by: Sharon Davis, Co-producer of The Search for Edna Lavilla