Report highlights over-representation of indigenous youth in criminal justice system

By Rebecca Devitt | 23 Jun 11

23 June 2011

A new parliamentary report tabled in Parliament, Doing Time-Time for Doing: Indigenous Youth in the criminal justice system has highlighted the over representation of young Indigenous people in the criminal justice system with statistics showing that Indigenous youth are 28 times more likely to be incarcerated than other youth in Australia.

The report, released by the House of Representatives committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs on Monday 19 June is damning in its assessment, calling the prevalence of Indigenous juveniles and young adults in jail a national “tragedy and disgrace.” The rate of incarceration for young Aboriginals has dramatically worsened since the release of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (1991) 20 years ago. This has occurred despite continued funding and efforts of community members, governments, non-government organisations and judiciary around Australia to reduce numbers.

According to the report, Indigenous youth contact with the justice system represents “a symptom of the broader social and economic disadvantage faced by many Indigenous people in Australia.” The report focuses on a range of issues, which contribute and impact on the over-representation of Indigenous youth including health, education, alcohol abuse and lack of employment.

The release of the report has been welcomed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda, who argued that the over representation of Indigenous youth in the criminal justice system is one of the most neglected but urgent issues to be addressed in order to overcome Indigenous disadvantage and highlighted the need for greater consultation with Indigenous people.

“Importantly, this report recognises that many of these issues are made worse by a lack of Government coordination and engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders,” Commissioner Gooda said.

The report’s most disturbing findings include the escalation of the number of Indigenous women in detention with numbers increasing between 2000 and 2010 to 47 percent and the case of a 13- year-old boy who was held for three days in the Kalgoorlie police station for a technical bail breach, which according to a submission from the Public Interest Advocacy Centre “was not a new offence, and does not harm the young person, another person or the community.” The case was dismissed by a magistrate and the boy was eventually granted bail, reflecting the contribution that over-policing can have on the high level of Indigenous youth within the justice system.

The committee report made 40 recommendations aimed at reducing numbers within the criminal justice system, including pre-court conferencing measures that would give offenders access to case workers and hearing tests for all pre-schoolers and incarcerated youth as 40 percent of indigenous people in urban areas and 70 per cent in rural Australia had some form of hearing loss.

The report also recommended changes to bail and sentencing laws and the development of a cultural awareness program for police. The need to reform the criminal justice system to include “early intervention, diversion and community support for indigenous youth” has the potential to radically reduce the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people according to Commissioner Gooda.

The Federal Attorney General, Robert McClelland has also stated that the rates of Indigenous incarceration are “plainly unacceptable” and urged state and territory governments to introduce more flexible sentencing laws.