‘What often gets forgotten when we focus on Indigenous incarceration statistics are the human faces behind them.’ Photograph: Jonny Weeks for the Guardian
More than 25 years ago the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody provided governments across Australia with a roadmap for reducing imprisonment rates. Since that time there have been countless reports and inquiries reiterating the landmark report’s recommendations. And yet government inaction remains and the statistics continue to worsen.
At the time of the royal commission, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were being imprisoned at seven times the rate of the non-Indigenous population. Today that figure has increased to 13 times. Our kids are 26 times more likely to be in detention than non-Indigenous young people, and our women represent the fastest-growing prison population in the country.
But it’s important to remember that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander incarceration rates are not an intractable problem. As a new Guardian Australia series launching this week highlights, the solutions are out there – now we just need governments to start listening.
What often gets forgotten when we focus on the statistics are the human faces behind them. As Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, we both know firsthand the everyday impact of imprisonment rates on our communities, as well as interrelated factors such as poverty, family violence, child welfare, disability and poor health. But we also know countless committed individuals who approach every day with a steady determination to make tangible change.
Each day our community-controlled organisations are on the frontline providing critical, culturally safe violence prevention and disability, health, legal and family support services. And we’re coming together to develop innovative and local solutions to tackle imprisonment rates, such as “justice reinvestment” – which is being trialled in Bourke and looked at by other communities around the country.
But we can’t achieve change alone.
That’s why just under two years ago we launched Change the Record, a national campaign aimed at closing the gap in incarceration rates and reducing rates of violence experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and children.
We brought together our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peak organisations which have deep frontline service expertise, and supporting legal and human rights focused organisations. Together we’ve developed a Blueprint for Change – a concrete plan for federal, state and territory governments to change the record on soaring Aboriginal imprisonment rates and high levels of experienced violence.
Prisons have been shown to be extremely costly, damaging and ultimately ineffective at reducing crime. We need a new approach to public safety, which focuses on greater investment in early intervention, prevention and diversion strategies, to target the underlying causes of crime and prevent offending from occurring in the first place.
This isn’t about spending more money. It’s about being smarter about where our dollars are going – taking the money that we’re putting into prisons and investing it into services that the community needs. And, most importantly, it’s about ensuring that our communities are involved in the decisions that affect our lives.
It’s time to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-designed and led solutions.
History has shown us time and time again that punitive “tough on crime” and top-down approaches are ineffective at making our communities safer. And yet, tragically, our governments continue to resort to “lock them up” politics.
It’s been less than a year since Australia was shocked by revelations of extreme mistreatment of young people in the Northern Territory’s Don Dale facility, and yet we are now witnessing a move towards a more punitive approach to youth justice in Victoria. While the Northern Territory government has been jolted into action and is beginning recognise the importance of investing in early-intervention and prevention programs, Victoria’s youth justice system is fast deteriorating.
We urgently need governments at all levels to learn from past experience and commit to working in partnership, implementing holistic, evidence-based policies over the long term.
To achieve transformational change, a cohesive national strategy is required. Federal, state and local governments must work in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to tackle this challenge head on. A critical first step would be the setting of federal “justice targets” under the Closing the Gap strategy – measurable goals aimed at reducing imprisonment rates and violence rates.
Just last year a Vote Compass survey found that two-thirds of Australians want our federal government to commit to reducing the rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people being imprisoned.
We know that our communities have the evidence, solutions and expertise to create change. Now we just need some political will.