Deal with crime and the rest will follow

Incarceration rates are a symptom of more fundamental problems. Focus on these and the rest will follow.

By Nyunggai Warren Mundine AO

The recently announced Australian Law Reform Commission review into Indigenous incarceration follows a long line of reviews. More than 50 have been tabled at the Don Dale Royal Commission, prompting Pat Anderson to remark “That’s all this country does, is talk about black fellas”.

I shocked some people with my reaction (which for politeness’ sake I won’t repeat here). I’ve made peace with the Prime Minister over the issue since then. My advice – for the review to meaningfully add to what we already know, the terms of reference must be well thought through.

The disparity in Indigenous incarceration rates overwhelmingly comes down to two things – violence and reoffending.

More than 57% of Indigenous prisoners are incarcerated for violent offences (being acts intended to cause injury, homicide, sexual assault, abduction and robbery/extortion). Only 2.6% of Indigenous prisoners are incarcerated for traffic offences; less than 1% for public order offences.

Indigenous people make up 3% of the population but 43% of those incarcerated for acts intended to cause injury and 18% of those incarcerated for homicides and sexual assault. Indigenous people are also disproportionately victims of homicide and violent offences.

Family and community violence play a big part. Data from the Australian Institute of Criminology’s National Homicide Monitoring Program between 1989-2012 found 67% of the Indigenous homicides were classified as domestic homicides compared to 26% of non-Indigenous homicides. It also found 70% of Indigenous homicides involved alcohol (compared to only 22% for non-Indigenous homicides), despite drinking rates among Indigenous Australians overall being no greater than for other Australians and despite a higher proportion of Indigenous people being non-drinkers. Those who do drink are more likely to drink harmful amounts.

Family and community violence thrives in socio-economic disadvantage and its bedfellows – social dysfunction, alcohol abuse, unemployment and sit-down money. Former Queensland Premier Peter Beattie summed it up very succinctly on Sky News recently, saying:

Putting people in jail is the result of dislocation, kids not going to school, alcohol abuse, and all the other problems, social dislocation in Indigenous families, not having jobs. … So if you want to keep people out of gaol you’ve go to the root cause. That’s where you tackle it – right at the heart.”

Spot on.

The second factor in disproportionate Indigenous rates is reoffending. Of the 2015 prison population, 77% of Indigenous prisoners had a prior sentence compared to 50% of non-Indigenous prisoners. Prior offences make prison sentences more likely and more severe.

There are known factors indicating whether reoffending is likely. One is having accommodation post release; if not secured within 48 hours, reoffending is likely. Others are getting drug, alcohol and mental health issues under control. Another critical factor is the offender not reconnecting with the same networks of friends and associates post release. Changing your network can be very difficult if you come from a small community or close kinship group and this is a particular challenge for Indigenous offenders from regional and remote areas. However, it has to be addressed or Indigenous people will continue to reoffend, and be incarcerated, disproportionately.

Comprehensive and targeted rehabilitation is the only way to tackle reoffending, for Indigenous and non-Indigenous offenders alike. It needs to start as soon as a person walks in the gates of detention, even if they’re on remand. It’s not uncommon for someone to be released on or soon after conviction if they’ve been on remand for some time, as this counts as time served. If rehabilitation programs only start after conviction, some offenders never receive assistance.

Rehabilitation should include getting people work ready and helping them secure a job on release. The best programs work with willing employers and enable the employer and offender to get to know each other before release.

Finally, governments and commentators must move past the narrative that Indigenous offenders are victims of racism, colonisation and intergenerational trauma; that they deserve pity rather than the consequences of their actions.

This narrative is paralysing.

It doesn’t help offenders and it doesn’t produce good policy. Psychological damage must be a focus of rehabilitation; not an excuse not to rehabilitate.

The data tells us another important fact. In 2015 there were 9,885 Indigenous prisoners out of more than 600,000 Indigenous Australians. The vast majority of Indigenous people aren’t in gaol. Yet all Indigenous Australians are colonised peoples; all are descended from persecuted people; most have personally experienced racism and disadvantage. History doesn’t programme us to be criminal.

Setting targets for closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous incarceration rates (justice targets) misses the point. Governments could close the gap tomorrow by simply decriminalising violent offences or releasing all Indigenous prisoners. That would be absurd and wouldn’t help. Incarceration rates are a symptom of more fundamental problems. Focus on these and the rest will follow.

This article was published in The Daily Telegraph on 18th November 2016.

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