The Northern Territory Government launched a wide-ranging plan to reduce high rates of Indigenous incarceration this month, tackling the failure of “successive governments” to invest in justice for Aboriginal people.

The Labor Government committed to developing the Aboriginal Justice Agreement in 2016. On August 9, it released a one-year action plan and seven-year framework.

The development of the Agreement by the government, in partnership with Indigenous and other non-governmental organisations, involved consultation with more than 120 communities across three years.

North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA) Principal Legal Officer David Woodroffe, a Jingilli man with family connections to the Stolen Generations, told NIT the most important thing is for the NT Government and justice department to work in partnership with Aboriginal communities.

Woodroffe, who is co-chair of the Aboriginal Justice Agreement (AJA), has worked as a lawyer in the Territory for 21 years.

“One of the most important features of the AJA is the recognition that in order to address the issues that have led to the terrible state we are in in the NT in terms of over-incarceration of Aboriginal people, the disenfranchisement of Aboriginal people from the justice system and the barriers to access to justice, the only solution is for government to work with Aboriginal people. That is the most important thing — that partnership with Aboriginal communities and organisations to fix the problems,” he said.

“The primary focus is to give back power and autonomy to Aboriginal people and communities, through measures including reinstating community courts.”

Woodroffe said the involvement of Elders and communities applying cultural knowledge to community courts helped deliver a “properly-tailored approach” to solutions.

“Things like community courts give back power. We are dealing with the legacy not only of the Intervention, which stripped away power and authority from Aboriginal people and communities and our Elders, but also the legacy of successive governments over decades not properly investing in justice for Aboriginal communities.”

Woodroffe said business as usual was untenable for the Territory.

“The justice system can’t keep going the way it is going. Our prisons are full, Aboriginal children are going into custody [and] Aboriginal women,” he said.

“Building more prisons and police stations, and ‘tough on crime’ policies are not the answer. We need to get back to community-based solutions.”

Woodroffe said in his more than 20 years of experience, he had seen Elders bring cultural knowledge and alternative solutions to the community justice process.

“Young people can go on Country and have support, they can go through ceremony … Law and justice groups work around care and protection issues as well, identifying kinship care — addressing community safety from domestic violence, and caring for children.”

He said the Agreement also acknowledges that racism is a driving issue behind inequality and injustice in the Territory “not just in the justice system but in government services and in the wider society”.

Woodroffe said the Territory has seen an eight-fold increase in the number of Aboriginal women going into prison, with devastating effects.

“This has terrible outcomes, the flow-on effect on families, on children … The majority of women in custody have a history of suffering domestic violence or sexual abuse or homelessness,” he said.

“We are focusing on getting them out of prison and supporting them and their families. I don’t think there has been enough done across the nation to address the issue of Aboriginal women going into custody.”

A private philanthropic organisation will partially-fund the delivery of the Agreement, raising questions over its long-term sustainability.

Woodroffe said there is space for private philanthropy — if done properly, in consultation with Aboriginal people.

“Philanthropic funding has an impact if it is directly focused on helping Aboriginal communities and organisations on the ground to provide services. There is a great space for philanthropic organisations to be working directly in partnership with Aboriginal communities,” he said.

“The primary responsibility of funding the AJA rests with government. We need to look at the funding that goes into incarcerating Aboriginal people — hundreds of millions of dollars.

“We need to bring that funding from incarcerating people into preventative processes, keeping people out of custody. The government cannot absolve themselves from this responsibility.”

By Giovanni Torre