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Unfinished business: reducing Indigenous incarceration

Koori women are the fastest-growing group in the Victorian prison population. Image from

Every two years, the Productivity Commission releases a report on the level of Indigenous disadvantage in Australia. These reports make for fairly bleak reading: most indicators show no change, and in some areas the “gap” between Indigenous and non-Indigenous outcomes continues to grow. Indigenous imprisonment is one such area.

From 2000 to 2010, the Indigenous imprisonment rate increased by 52%, while non-Indigenous rates have hardly changed.

This will come as no surprise to anyone involved with Australian justice systems. Indigenous over-representation at all stages of the justice process first made headlines during the Deaths in Custody Royal Commission in the early 1990s and has been flagged as a serious problem in report after report in the decades since then.

The most recent contribution to this depressing debate is Unfinished Business: Koori Women and the Justice System, released by the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission on Monday. The report shows Koori women are the fastest-growing group in the Victorian prison population and are imprisoned at a higher rate than non-Koori women and Koori men.

According to the report, this over-representation in arrest, conviction and imprisonment is driven by family violence and sexual abuse, inter-generational trauma, mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse and, tragically, high rates of re-imprisonment.

The authors call for the development of effective diversionary options for Koori women, arguing that the existing suite of programs available to offenders are neither culturally or gender appropriate. Importantly, the report doesn’t stop with a “more should be done” set of recommendations, but argues specifically for a residential community-based service model (the “hub”) linked to a range of case management and treatment services (the “spokes”).

But if the past two decades have taught us anything about this problem it’s that recommending solutions in the form of more and better programs doesn’t necessarily change anything. In the last year alone there have been reports addressing this issue by the Senate, the Australian Institute of Criminology, the Australian National Council on Drugs, the Law Council of Australia and a variety of academic and non-government organisations.

Juvenile Indigenous offenders have been the focus of a great deal of attention. Flickr/publik16

So why is the problem of indigenous imprisonment so intractable?

The pessimistic view is that as a country we have elected, in the last two decades, to go down a route of “penal expansionism” – imprisoning people at ever higher rates on the basis that this is justified by the improved security for the community - and that Indigenous Australians are particularly disadvantaged by this strategy.

In effect, the system-wide changes associated with the “politics of insecurity” (zero-tolerance policing, longer sentences, more restrictive bail and parole policies, targeting of repeat offenders) overwhelm any marginal changes to justice processes designed to limit their impact on Indigenous offenders. Criminology expert Chris Cunneen refers to this approach as “governing through crime” and argues that it has meant that the goal of reducing Indigenous imprisonment has become increasingly insignificant.

On a more positive note, there has been an increase in the range of diversionary programs for Indigenous people or specifically for Indigenous women. The Australian Institute of Criminology identified a range of programs available to Indigenous women offenders across Australia, and there is even larger number of programs for Indigenous male offenders.

Juvenile Indigenous offenders have been the focus of a great deal of attention and there is some evidence that diversion efforts are having an effect – Indigenous juvenile detention rates were stable from 2000 to 2006, increased in 2007 and 2008 and then declined again in 2009.

However such programs are typically relatively small scale and often suffer from inconsistent funding. A key problem is that there are few proven intervention models for Indigenous offenders and scant evaluation evidence about what forms of intervention are effective.

In the last two years, Justice Reinvestment has been promoted as a solution for Indigenous over-representation in prison. Justice Reinvestment is the idea that funding currently directed into custodial services is reinvested into education, programs and services that address the underlying causes of crime, and that this investment is justified by the savings derived from lower crime and imprisonment rates.

The United States is widely regarded as the exemplar of penal expansionism. But in August, attorney-general Eric Holder called for a fundamental change in approach, arguing that “we cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation”, and citing Justice Reinvestment as the vehicle for reform.

The social and institutional problems the US faces as a result of its decades-long commitment to penal expansionism are no less significant than the ones that Australia faces. If they can change, so can we.

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