Indigenous Incarceration - 25/11/2019

25 November 2019



I rise today to speak in support of the motion from the member for Fenner. I want to thank him for this motion and for the research that he's conducted on this very important issue. What the member for Fenner has revealed is the shameful reality of incarceration in Australia. In fact, he points to what he calls a second convict age in Australia, as we now incarcerate a greater share of the population than at any point since 1899. More Indigenous Australians are locked up than ever before, with a higher share of First Nations peoples locked up in Australia than the notoriously high number of African Americans in the USA. And these increases are not due to increasing crime rates; crime in Australia has actually decreased over the same period.

More work needs to be done at all levels of government to significantly reduce the number of First Nations people in jail. We need to know more about the future costs, both social and economic, of continuing to lock people up at record levels. We need to take part in a data-driven conversation to determine the best way to reduce crime and imprisonment in Australia. We know that once someone enters the criminal justice system the chances of them leading a happy and productive life decrease significantly, a dire cost for both the people and our nation.

Why do we lock up over 43,000 Australians every year, and why, when the average incarceration rate in Australia is 0.22 per cent, do we lock up First Nations people at a rate of 2.5 per cent, the highest level on record? It is shocking that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men remain twice as likely to be in jail than to go to university. This statistic is not new, but it is something that should disgust us all as Australians and we need to keep talking about it until we can address it.

Many First Nations people have a culturally ingrained mistrust of our law enforcement agencies, and even fear of them, born out of intergenerational trauma. As the member for Cooper said, I speak with humility on this issue as I have no claim to understand what that is like. When your peoples and communities have faced systemic mistreatment for over 200 years, it is understandable that this would be the case. The number of incarcerated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders supports this position.

This is something we need to recognise as policymakers. At a roundtable discussion on the issue of Indigenous incarceration, organised by Change the Record in September, a young mother spoke about the impact of incarceration on her life. After a very tough childhood she sought belonging in all the wrong places, ending up in jail at a young age and then into a cycle of disadvantage and isolation. While in prison, she came to understand that the decades of struggle that her family had faced had played a definite role in her imprisonment and would impact on her children too if she wasn't able to build a better life outside. I promise not to forget her story.

A key change she advocated for was increasing the age of criminal responsibility. Here in Australia that age is 10 years. The international average is 12 and the United Nations recommends the age of 14. Why is Australia condemning children to a life in and out of prison by expecting them to make decisions like adults from the age of 10 years old? First Nations people continue to die in jails, police stations and remand centres, despite the fact that we held a royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody in 1991. In the 28 years since the report was published the issue has gotten worse, with 424 deaths between 1991 and August this year, and in recent weeks we have seen the deaths of Kumanjayi Walker and Joyce Clarke. The problem is worse than ever and as Australians we should all be devastated by this.

The Aboriginal deaths in custody report was presented to the parliament by the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs the Hon. Robert Tickner, on 9 May 1991. He concluded his speech by saying:

It is not too late, however, for other deaths to be prevented. The Royal Commissioners have given us their insights, their advice and a clear direction for change.

The families of those who have died, and indeed all Australians, have a right to expect that governments at all levels and of all political persuasions will act together to ensure that change takes place.

It must be said that the 426 deaths—and continuing and counting—must lead us to conclude that governments at all levels and of all political persuasions have failed. Instead, we have spent the intervening years doubling the Indigenous prisoner population.