The Law Council of Australia has called for urgent change to combat high rates of imprisonment highlighted in the Productivity Commission’s latest report on overcoming Indigenous disadvantage.
The report, released today (November 17), found some improvement in the areas of health, economic participation and education, but noted the national imprisonment rate was “alarmingly high” and had increased 77 per cent over the past 15 years.
It also found that while Indigenous juvenile detention rates had decreased, they remained 24 times higher than for non-Indigenous youth.
Law Council of Australia president Stuart Clark said the need for urgent change was clear.
“Current rates of Indigenous imprisonment are nothing shy of a national scandal,” Mr Clark said.
“Three per cent of the general population is Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, yet this group makes up 27 per cent of the prison population. The problem was atrocious enough to shock a nation when it was examined by a Royal Commission in 1991, and it has grown much, much worse since then.
“We know the corrosive effects of incarceration, both on the individual serving time, their families, and their communities. Unfortunately, imprisonment is now simply part of the Indigenous experience and forms an integral aspect of the cycle of disadvantage.”
“The good news is we know there are a myriad of constructive ways to start driving this rate down.
“COAG must adopt ‘reducing Indigenous imprisonment’ as a key item on its ‘Closing the Gap’ agenda, and the Commonwealth, states and territories must establish and report on justice targets.
“Laws which have a disproportionate impact on Indigenous people should also be reformed.
“Bail and remand laws must be reformed to ensure Indigenous children are not held in detention unnecessarily.
“We must stop imprisoning people who simply can’t pay fines and mandatory sentencing should be abolished across the board.”
The NSW Aboriginal Land Council called on governments to pay greater attention to the link between Aboriginal connection to land and improved outcomes in health, education and well-being.
Commenting on the release of the Productivity Commission’s report, NSWALC chairman Roy Ah-See said land was the key factor in healing and empowering Aboriginal people.
“The Productivity Commission report recognises what the land rights network in NSW already knows – that ownership and control of land and business delivers opportunities to increase income and create jobs that directly benefit Aboriginal peoples,” he said.
“The report also references the unique land rights system in New South Wales that allows Local Aboriginal Land Councils to claim certain Crown lands that are unneeded or not being used.
“This has empowered Aboriginal people to create and manage an economic base. Throughout the State, we have Local Aboriginal Land Councils engaged in property development and international tourism ventures.
“In many regional towns and centres they are the main providers of essential services.
“The NSW Aboriginal Land Council is also investing in the capacity of Local Aboriginal Land Councils through a $16 million five-year economic development strategy which is providing start-up capital and business development support for the network, as well as an Early Stage Investment Loans program.
“The return of land to Aboriginal people has provided new opportunities to strengthen us culturally and spiritually and to provide our own revenue streams, jobs and training opportunities.
“Connection to land is key to driving better economic, educational and health outcomes for Aboriginal people and that’s why governments must make Local Aboriginal Land Councils part of the solution to closing the gap.”
It was the Productivity Commission’s seventh report on Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage since 2003.
The report measured 52 indicators in areas such as health, education, employment and governance.
The National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples said it was concerned that Indigenous disadvantage was becoming entrenched rather than overcome.
NCAFP co-chairperson Rod Little said: “While the latest report shows improvement on a number indicators, disturbingly, these are in a minority.
“For the rest, there has been a deterioration of conditions, no change, or the data inadequate to determine any change, positive or negative.”