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Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody: up to us to improve outcomes for future generations

PrisonToday marks 25 years since the landmark Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody handed down its final report. The report made 339 recommendations on how the Federal Government could work to reduce the over-representation of Aboriginal people in our criminal justice system.

Twenty five years later it is an indictment on our nation that we are continuing to have the same conversations. Aboriginal people remain significantly over-represented in our prisons, in part due to punitive law-and-order approaches like the reforms to bail and parole, mandatory sentencing and the introduction of paperless arrests in the Northern Territory.

Tragically, the issue of deaths in custody continues to blight us. In 2014, a 22-year old Aboriginal woman known as Ms Dhu died in custody in Western Australia after being detained for unpaid fines. At the Coronial Inquest in late 2015 it was made know that Ms Dhu was a victim of family violence and had been begging for medical attention before dying of septicaemia and pneumonia.

She was the 340th Aboriginal death in custody since the Royal Commission handed down its recommendations.

One of the many recommendations in the Royal Commission’s report was in relation to young Aboriginal people:

That governments and Aboriginal organisations recognise that the problems affecting Aboriginal juveniles are so widespread and have such potentially disastrous repercussions for the future that there is an urgent need for governments and Aboriginal organisations to negotiate together to devise strategies designed to reduce the rate at which Aboriginal juveniles are involved in the welfare and criminal justice systems…

It is clear that this has not been the case. Aboriginal children aged 10 to 14 years remain 23 times more likely to be under community-based supervision and 25 times more likely to be in detention than their non-Aboriginal peers.

In Western Australia, Aboriginal children are 53 times more likely to be jailed than their non-Aboriginal peers.

They are statistics as striking as they are shocking, and clear evidence that previous interventions to prevent Aboriginal children from having contact with the justice system from a young age are not working.

We have previously advocated for investments into specialist Children’s Courts, such as the Koori Children’s Court, in all jurisdictions. This would allow a culturally-specific response to be formulated for young Aboriginal people, with the aim of helping them to strengthen connections to community, family and kin and steer their lives in positive and productive directions.

In Victoria we operate the Barreng Moorop program, which was developed in recognition that young Aboriginal children who have their first contact with the criminal justice system aged 14 years or younger are at significantly higher risk of subsequent involvement in the criminal justice system.

The program works in partnership with the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service (VALS) and the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency (VACCA) to focus on diverting young people away from the justice system by addressing the underlying issues that impact on their offending behaviour.

Jesuit Social Services believes prison should be used as a last resort, and diversion has a crucial role to play in supporting children to understand the consequences of their behaviour while addressing driving factors behind their offending.

Strong and sustained investments into culturally appropriate diversion initiatives for young Aboriginal people is one way to ultimately reduce prison rates and create safer communities.

We have also lobbied for the age of criminal responsibility to be raised from 10 to 12, in line with the United Nations’ ruling. Currently the minimum age of criminal responsibility in all Australian jurisdictions is 10, despite experts in children’s brain development agreeing that children under 12 lack the capacities for full criminal responsibility.

It is a national disgrace that so little has changed in terms of Aboriginal incarceration rates in the past 25 years. It is up to us, as a nation, to improve these numbers and outcomes for future generations.

This post is written by Kathryn Kernohan, Media Relations Manager at Jesuit Social Services.

Image credit: Matthlas Muller