A national inquiry into child protection laws and processes affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children is one of 35 wide-ranging recommendations in a major report on the over-representation of Indigenous people in Australian prisons.

The 524-page report by the Australian Law Reform Commission, led by Indigenous judge Matthew Myers, was tabled in Federal Parliament last week and has been supported by Aboriginal legal bodies and human rights organisations across the nation.

The culmination of 11 months of investigations by the ALRC, an independent statutory body set up to conduct reviews into Australian laws, the report comes as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults now make up 27 percent of domestic prisoners, despite accounting for just two percent of the national population.

It recommends setting ‘Closing the Gap’-type targets to reduce the rate at which Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people are locked up and also the rates of violence against Indigenous people, particularly women.

The Pathways to Justice – Inquiry into the Incarceration Rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples report acknowledges the high rate of removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children into out-of-home care and also the links between out-of-home-care, juvenile justice and adult incarceration.

“The Terms of Reference for this inquiry do not include an investigation into child protection, child removal or the juvenile justice system,” the report states.

“However, given the link between out-of-home care, juvenile justice and adult incarceration, a link that has been shown in many studies and reports, the ALRC considers that the issue warrants further attention.

“In consultations, the ALRC was told many times of the normalisation of incarceration in many Aboriginal families, and in particular those where children have been removed or have been in juvenile detention.”

Key findings

Among its other recommendations, the ALRHC suggests:

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations be involved in setting targets to reduce the rate at which Indigenous people are jailed.
  • Governments support the setting up of an independent body to promote resources being redirected from the criminal justice system to community initiatives aimed at lowering crime and incarceration. It would be overseen by a board with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership.
  • Aboriginal communities lead initiatives to reduce the harmful effects of alcohol in some areas, and governments support those communities wanting to address alcohol misuse.
  • There should be changes to sentencing and bail laws to take into account background factors affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
  • Community-based sentencing options should be expanded, particularly in regional and remote areas.
  • Mandatory sentencing, which can have a disproportionate impact on Indigenous people, should be repealed.
  • People should no longer be jailed for defaulting on fines.

The report said the cost of implementing the recommendations would be a justice “reinvestment”.

Currently it costs an estimated $3.9 billion to keep Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in jail.

Read also: June Oscar calls for change.

Wendy Caccetta