Indigenous incarceration rates: Australia’s shame

Aboriginal males under 45 are incarcerated at a rate 10 times that of the non-Aboriginal population for crimes that are characterised as containing an element of violence, or ‘intent to cause harm’.

What does this mean, and what does it reflect about Australias attitude towards its Indigenous population, more than a decade after a state of emergency was declared, and the Northern Territory Intervention took place? Melissa Di Giacomo looks at the gross overrepresentation of Aboriginal Australians in the penal system.

Australian incarceration rates do not differ significantly from those in other developed nations, with just under 2% of the population serving sentences in a penal institution as of the year 2005. However, the percentage jumps significantly for Aboriginal Australians, with approximately 1561 of every 100,000 doing time. This number becomes even more staggering when taking into account the fact that Aboriginal Australians comprise less than 3% of the Australian population.

Multiple studies suggest that these elevated figures for the

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Aboriginal population directly reflect the social disadvantage that Indigenous Australians experience as the accumulated result of centuries of racial discrimination. Indeed, social disadvantage is regularly flagged as a major underlying reason for imprisonable offences. In 1996, acting Social Justice Commissioner Mick Dodson described state-sanctioned incarceration as a ‘revolving door,’ which mimics the conditions of social disadvantage that cause prisoners to offend in the first place. Overwhelmingly, people in prison have experienced discrimination on the grounds of wealth, disability and racial background. Aboriginal Australians represent one of the world’s most disadvantaged demographics in one of the world’s richest countries. It is unsurprising, then, that Aboriginal Australians experience social disadvantage at an elevated rate. Disturbingly, this has been on the rise since the 1980s.

The term ‘intent to cause harm’ is listed most regularly as the reason for imprisonment of Indigenous people. Correspondingly, the national government’s Northern Territory Emergency Response was crafted directly to address the disproportionate amount of violent crimes that have been documented in Indigenous communities. However, far from driving the number of violent incidents down, all this seems to have done is to have resulted in more arrests.

Dr Stuart Ross, senior researcher in criminology at the University of Melbourne, recently explained to Catalyst the ways in which incarceration is often a less-than-ideal solution for addressing problems of domestic violence.

“What you’re looking at is the end of a pathway that begins with not having opportunities in life, such as the opportunity to earn money, and to gain respect in conventional and socially sanctioned ways. Because your education has been poor, then your access to employment will be poorer,” he said. “If a child grows up in a family where their father or mother is not present for long periods of time because they’re in jail [for violent behaviour], then clearly they are substantially disadvantaged by that experience. Sending people to jail doesn’t fix that problem. All it means is that the violence becomes episodic. Either Dad’s in jail and he’s not with the family, or he’s at home being violent. At no point in the process does anything get done that actually fixes the problem.”

Dr Ross highlighted the need for a united philosophical approach in justice policy––a whole of government approach––which promotes a united and egalitarian front, whilst taking into account the disadvantaged circumstances of many people living in Indigenous communities:

“It’s not just about making the court decision, or stopping the police from making arrests. All of those things are important, but they’re not actually solutions.”

Thus far, however, policy seems to have taken a turn in the opposite direction. During the economic boom of the 1980s and ‘90s the suicide rate for Aboriginal men increased by 800%, as did the rate of domestic violence in Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory. The solution put forth by the Howard government was the Northern Territory Emergency Response, which saw the government take a direct and intrusive approach to the financial management of Aboriginal families. Many see the measures taken as counterproductive. Journalist Chris Graham argues in an essay that the continuing incarceration of Aboriginal Australians at an increasing rate is indicative of the frustration experienced by a disempowered people whose needs and rights are not adequately recognised and catered for by the government. Citing cases of riots in impoverished Northern Territory communities and Indigenous deaths in custody, he demands, “How can we pretend violence is not the inevitable outcome if we continue to stand by and watch Aboriginal men, women and children live miserable lives in desperate poverty?”

Similarly, Larissa Behrendt, Professor of Indigenous Research at Sydney’s University of Technology, suggests that the continuing proliferation of incarceration of Indigenous people is the result of the government’s symbolic approach to Indigenous rights. She refers to the tokenistic successes of the 1967 referendum and Kevin Rudd’s ‘National Sorry Day,’ and notes that they have not noticeably improved the day-to-day circumstances of Indigenous persons. “The rhetoric was powerful; the results unimpressive,” she writes.

Pressure is on the government to address the tokenism in these symbolic successes and draft more practical solutions, relating specifically to healthcare, education and housing for Indigenous persons. Solutions would encapsulate a recognition of Indigenous language and culture, thus empowering Indigenous persons to take a more self-determining role in their systemic empowerment. In 2007, the Howard government suspended the 1975 Racial Discrimination Act (RDA) and introduced compulsory income management to Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory. This involved the partial suspension of Centrelink payments in favour of the distribution of a “Basics card,” which can only be used for the purchase of “essentials” such as groceries. Although the suspension of the RDA was rescinded by the Gillard government in the 2010 Welfare Reform Act, income management continues to proliferate in Indigenous communities.

Such draconian measures display a preference for an exclusionary and punitive brand of top-down management for ingrained social exclusion and disadvantage. This is unempowering and counterproductive for those whom it seeks to protect. It is also revealing of a trend in policymaking whereby those in positions of power are ill-equipped to understand the dispossession of Indigenous Australians, being less likely to have experienced social disadvantage themselves. A report published by the Institute of Public Affairs Australia suggests that family violence is often linked social exclusion, a problem which results in ‘intractable problems,’ encompassed by social inequality and the inability to merge with the universalist, traditional-conservative or deterministic principles that dominate government policy. This in turn suggests that the further exclusion denoted by the quarantining of income in Indigenous communities degrades the Indigenous population through the reiteration of social exclusion through segregation on the grounds of race. The heavy-handed approach to reducing rates of violence reflects the inability of the government to address and understand the cultural issues implicit in family violence.

The results of the Northern Territory Emergency Response speak for themselves. Compulsory income management for Indigenous persons has largely been a failure. Seventy-four percent of women surveyed after the implementation of compulsory income management reported they felt discriminated against.

The ongoing conflict between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians stems in part from the colonial approach the government continues to adopt in a paradoxical attempt to counteract years of racial discrimination. Self-empowering processes such as investment in education, infrastructure and Indigenous language, art and culture have largely been overlooked. An unwillingness to engage with Indigenous people through the rejection of partnership and a voice in policy-making promotes an adversarial outlook. Compulsory income management is thus unempowering for Indigenous individuals and groups, and continues to perpetuate the stigma that is attached to having Indigenous heritage in this country.

Further retribution is then meted out through incarceration. This is the manifestation of a system that removes people from the routines and patterns required to function successfully in society. It fails to break an established pattern of disempowerment and disadvantage. For the percentage of Indigenous Australians who have spent time in jail, life in prison isn’t much different to life outside it. In both cases one is controlled by a punitive force over which they have no say or control. In both cases one is made to feel culpable for their circumstances, irrespective of whether they are the result of disadvantage or justly merited.

The public chooses not to focus on the steps to self-empowerment that have been taken in Aboriginal communities. This has resulted in a phenomenon of resignation and acceptance of Indigenous disadvantage, which, whilst it draws much-needed attention to the social exclusion of Indigenous people, does nothing to correct it. Recently, Prime Minister Tony Abbott flagged ‘closing the gap’ between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians with the same importance he has allocated to “stopping the boats, fixing the budget and building the roads of the 20th century”. Whether he plans to diverge from the existing precedent remains to be seen. Currently, Abbott’s Indigenous Advisory Council plans to trial a brand new youth diversion program in Western Australia, which, if successful, will be implemented nationally.

However, the new program will be trialled in lieu of continuing funding for the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service (NATSILS). The NATSILS chairperson, Shane Duffy, told The Australian he was disappointed the national government has chosen to invest in a new, untested strategy in lieu of taking up the opportunity to draw on the wealth of information NATSILS has amassed over its time in operation.

“The expertise held by frontline services is a vital piece of the puzzle in reducing offending and making our justice system more effective and efficient. Without the input of such services, the fear is that yet another opportunity to make a difference will be squandered, regardless of the level of good intention,” he said.

The Australian government has thus far done an excellent job of sending the message that violence in Indigenous communities will result in imprisonment. It has not taken steps to address the cultural epidemic behind Indigenous offending. This seems hypocritical when policymakers are rushing to make new laws to culturally rework the concept of ‘king-hitting’ to protect young, white males from being violently assaulted in the streets. Hopefully, Prime Minister Abbott’s rigorous enthusiasm for ending Indigenous disadvantage will mean the inflated Indigenous incarceration rate will not continue to be overlooked.

By Melissa Di Giacomo


Picture via Flickr

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