‘Smarter justice, safer communities’ is the headline objective for the Change the Record campaign, launched earlier this year by the National Justice Coalition, a group of leading Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, community and human rights organisations.
In this article below, published as part of Croakey’s #JustJustice series, the Coalition’s Shane Duffy & Kirstie Parker outline the Change the Record blueprint for addressing over-imprisonment rates for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – arguing that the solutions lie in building communities, not prisons, and in smarter criminal justice policies that treat the causes of over-incarceration, not just the symptoms.
An early goal is to convince the Federal Government to commit to measurable justice targets in the Closing of the Gap Strategy and plans on how to achieve them.
Shane Duffy & Kirstie Parker write:
Earlier this month was NAIDOC week, a time in which we celebrate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history, culture and achievement. The week was filled with powerful events honouring the many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who make important contributions to our communities and Australian society as a whole. We have much to celebrate in the resilience and diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and culture. There was, however, a heavy shadow for us during the week: the imprisonment and violence rates that are growing exponentially and which are devastating our communities.
Much has been written recently about the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as both offenders and victims/survivors in the criminal justice system. Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda has said it is “one of the most urgent human rights issues facing Australia”. But while the issue is well known, less attention has been paid to addressing the underlying causes.
Earlier this year the National Justice Coalition, a group of leading Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, community and human rights organisations came together to launch a blueprint for changing the record. We argued that the solutions lie in building communities, not prisons, and in smarter criminal justice policies that treat the causes, not just the symptoms.
Prisons have been shown to be extremely costly, damaging and ultimately ineffective at reducing crime. Underlying socio-economic disadvantage such as poverty, poor education, drug and alcohol abuse, and disability are the hallmark of crime and imprisonment. In recent years, state governments have compounded these issues through the use of tough ‘law and order’ policies, such as the expansion of mandatory sentencing which has contributed to unacceptable prison numbers and violence in communities. We believe the solutions lie in addressing this disadvantage and developing smarter criminal justice policies.
At the time of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were being imprisoned at a rate 7 times higher than the non-Indigenous population. Today, almost 25 years later, that figure has increased to 13 times. At the same time, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are currently being hospitalised for family violence related assault at 34 times the rate of non-Indigenous women. It is long past time that we took action to change our country’s record on this issue.
It’s time for us to take a different approach to crime and public safety and how it is best achieved.
Evidence clearly demonstrates that strong, healthy communities are the most effective way to prevent crime and make communities safe. Every dollar spent on prisons is one less dollar available to invest in reducing social and economic disadvantage through education, health, disability, housing, employment and other programs.
Government funding should instead be reinvested into early intervention, prevention and diversion initiatives that address the underlying root causes of crime, and can break the cycle of imprisonment and violence. It is also vital that government works in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, communities, services and their representatives, to develop and implement solutions. Directly affected people are best placed to identify local issues in their communities, and develop and implement localised, tailored solutions.
Reducing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ rates of imprisonment and experience of violence will take a joint effort by communities, organisations and governments. However, there is reason for optimism. The strength of the National Justice Coalition is that it consists of a broad range of organisations that have the experience and expertise to identify what the solutions are and work with the public, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and government to implement them.
The National Justice Coalition’s ‘Change the Record’ campaign is calling on all levels of government to work together to address this issue. We have two overarching aims – to close the gap in rates of imprisonment by 2040; and to cut the disproportionate rates of violence to at least close the gap by 2040, with priority strategies for women and children. A welcome first step would be for the federal government to exercise critical leadership by committing to measurable justice targets in the Closing of the Gap Strategy and plans on how these will targets be achieved.
We are asking all Australians to stand with us. We know the issues and we know the solutions. We all want to live in safe and strong communities. Work with us and together we can Change the Record.
Shane Duffy is chair of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services. Kirstie Parker is co-chair of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples. Together they are co-chairs of the National Justice Coalition.
To find out more about the National Justice Coalition’s ‘Change the Record’ campaign please go to: www.changetherecord.org.au
Read the latest in the #JustJustice series here:
Croakey acknowledges and thanks all those who donated to support #JustJustice. We also thank and acknowledge our premium sponsors, the Jesuit Social Services, and Frank Meany of One Vision.