Calls for ‘Urgent Reform’ to Address Skyrocketing Indigenous Incarceration Rate
11 July 2017 at 3:41 pm
A peak body for law reform in NSW is calling on the state government to “urgently” act to address NSW’s skyrocketing Indigenous incarceration rates.
In light of a new report revealing Indigenous imprisonment in NSW has risen by 25 per cent since 2013, The Law Society of NSW has called on the state government to implement more culturally appropriate support for Indigenous offenders.
According to the latest report from the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR), released on Monday, the NSW Indigenous imprisonment rate is 13.5 times higher than the non-indigenous rate and Indigenous Australians are close to eight times more likely to be imprisoned than African-Americans in the United States.
The report noted a recent study which found one in four Indigenous young adults born in 1984 had been remanded in custody, placed in youth detention centres or received a prison sentence by the time they reached the age of 23.
Based on the statistics, the report concluded “the prospects for Indigenous youth in NSW appear particularly grim”.
The report also noted that since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1993, the Indigenous imprisonment rate in Australia has risen by 63 per cent.
But the rise of Indigenous incarceration was more likely due to factors relating to policing than an increase in offences, the report found.
“The question arises as to whether the growth in convictions for these offences reflects an increase in offending behaviour or a change in policing/enforcement policy,” the report said.
In a statement BOCSAR director Don Weatherburn said the rise in the growth in imprisonment for stalking/intimidation offences was particularly noteworthy.
BOCSAR found that the number of Indigenous Australians imprisoned in NSW for stalking/intimidation offences was more than eight times higher in 2016 than it had been in 2012.
“The abrupt nature of the increase in convictions for stalking/intimidation offences… and the absence of any reason for expecting a sudden growth in this sort of offence suggests that it is more likely to reflect changes in policing policy than a change in criminal behaviour,” the report said.
Weatherburn said the vast majority of Indigenous defendants convicted of minor assaults, stalking/intimidation, breach of a good behaviour bond or breach of a suspended sentence were given a “short” (less than 12 month) prison sentence.
“This makes them eligible for sanctions such as Intensive Correction Orders, which attempt to address the underlying causes of offending behaviour,” Weatherburn said.
ICOs are an alternative to imprisonment, where supervised offenders do community service and are given support and access to rehabilitative services.
Weatherburn said the number of Indigenous offenders receiving a prison sentence could be reduced by more than 500 a year across NSW if they were instead given an ICO.
“Unfortunately, ICOs are rarely given for the sorts of offences that have driven recent growth in Indigenous imprisonment in NSW,” he said.
Responding to the report, The Law Society of NSW president Pauline Wright said reforms were “urgently needed” to allow for a greater use of ICOs and home detention, particularly in regional and remote areas.
“Many Indigenous people are spending short periods in jail needlessly, putting them at risk and doing nothing for deterrence,” Wright said.
“We need to increase engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to develop more culturally appropriate support for Indigenous offenders and victims.”
Wright said the NSW government should remove the majority of offences that currently exclude an offender from ICOs.
She also called on the government to extend the maximum length of ICOs and home detention from two to three years.
Wright said the range of activities that satisfy the community service work attached to an ICO should be broadened to help integrate offenders back into the community.
The Law Society of NSW also called on the government to expand NSW Drug Courts to more locations.
“More drug and alcohol rehabilitation centres and resources for diversionary and early intervention programs could put people on a better path,” Wright said.
“Drug Courts are proven to be more effective at reducing crime than imprisonment. They also mean the families of addicted offenders can look forward to a brighter future with their loved ones while the community benefits from longer-term savings to the health and justice systems.”
According to a PwC Australia and PwC Australia’s Indigenous Consulting report, published in May the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders is costing the Australian economy nearly $8 billion annually and will grow to almost $20 billion per annum by 2040 without further intervention.