Hard Labor: Black incarceration rates soar

August 19, 2011

You’ll never guess which political party sat and watched while the Aboriginal incarceration rate sky-rocketed.

We heard it on the radio. And we saw it on the television. Report after report, and promises delivered by talking politicians.

But while this was occurring, Aboriginal people wallowed inside this nation’s jails and detention centres, their futures cast by a system that jails them at staggeringly disproportionate rates.

It’s a problem that cripples our families, and our communities, and is as complex as it is troubling.

It’s not an unknown problem. Politicians a plenty have paid lip service to it.

In 2007, Labor leader Kevin Rudd made a raft of promises to Aboriginal Australia prior to the election.

Buried among them were commitments on how his government would tackle Aboriginal deaths in custody and the skyrocketing Indigenous incarceration rates.

The number of Aboriginal people behind bars has been steadily increasing ever since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody came to a close in 1991.

It is now at its highest in two decades.

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As rates soared, and the election approached, Labor didn’t venture far from the familiar script of motherhood statements and bare minimum promises.

In its National Platform, which was later redrafted after Labor won office, it claimed it was “committed to reducing the over-representation of Indigenous Australians in the criminal justice system”.

“Labor acknowledges that a national whole of government social justice approach, in cooperation with state and territory governments, is required to tackle the complex underlying causes of such over-representation.”

Not long after the election, the victor, Rudd, stood before the nation and made good one of his promises — “Sorry”.

He told the nation he would do more to eliminate the disadvantage faced by Australia’s first peoples.

In doing so, the Prime Minister unveiled “Close the Gap”.

Within this policy were six targets, agreed by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG), and targeting key areas such as health, employment and education.

But there was little focus on Indigenous incarceration.

In fact, there is no COAG commitment to reduce the number of Aboriginal people in the criminal justice system.

This month, there was more talk about the problem, but little concrete commitment from federal, state and territory governments around the country.

For the past two years, a House of Representatives inquiry has been delving into why Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth are so over-represented in juvenile detention.

After receiving 110 submissions, and undertaking 18 public hearings around the country, it finally released its long-awaited report: Doing Time — Time for Doing.

The document highlighted a disturbing lack of progress in reducing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander incarceration rates over the decades since the Royal Commission.

Today, 25% of prisoners in Australia are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.

That’s a quarter of the total Australian prison population, and comes despite the fact First Nations people make up less than 2.5% of the mainstream community.

But this has not always been the case.

Over the past decade, the rate of blackfellas behind bars has increased markedly. The figures are staggering.

The number of Indigenous men incarcerated has jumped by 55%, while the number for Indigenous women has jumped by 47%.

Our youth are also being jailed at rates that beggar belief.

The detention rate for Indigenous juveniles is 397 per 100,000 people, 28 times higher than their non-Indigenous counterparts, who are 14 per 100,000.

The report says that “in 2007, Indigenous juveniles accounted for 59% of the total juvenile detention population”.

These horrific statistics should come as no surprise.

Report after report has shown that we have been locking up our nation’s First Peoples at ever increasing rates, and the number of Aboriginal people who die in custody, whether in watchhouses or prison vans, has ensured this problem has been a mainstay on the front pages of our newspapers.

But when you break it down into how each state and territory is locking up Aboriginal people, the situation is even more startling.

All states and territories, except Tasmania and the ACT, have overseen steep increases in the number of Indigenous people in jails.

Over the past decade, the Northern Territory has had the sharpest rise. In the period between 2000 to 2009, there was a 90% increase in Aboriginal people in jail.

This record is followed by South Australia, which saw a rise of 65% over the same period.

New South Wales is not far behind with a 57% increase, while Western Australia climbed by 54%.

Indigenous incarceration rates in Victoria rose by 50% in the same period, while Queensland had the lowest increase with 23%.

Contrary to popular belief, New South Wales jails the most black Australians, with 2139 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders filling its prisons.

But Western Australia has the highest jailing rate per capita than any other state or territory.

In fact, it jails its Indigenous population at a higher rate per capita than any country in the world.

WA is so bad it jails black males at a rate more than eight times greater than South Africa did when its Apartheid regime collapsed in 1993.

Currently, at least three Aboriginal Western Australians are in jail for every 100 West Australian residents.

Even more startling is how this rise has continued over the past decade in nearly every state and territory, despite the recommendations of the Royal Commission.

So who has presided over these dramatic rises in Indigenous incarceration rates?

Labor has held the Northern Territory since 2001.

Labor has held Queensland since 1998.

Labor has held South Australia since 2002.

Labor held New South Wales from 1995 until this year.

Labor held Victoria from 1999 to 2010.

And Labor held Western Australia from 2001 to 2008.

Labor, of course, is not solely responsible for the highest Indigenous incarceration rates in the Western world. Successive governments of all political persuasions have played their part.

But in light of the recent parliamentary report — and the staggering increase in the past decade — Labor deserves a special mention.

So why, while Labor has been in power, have we seen such steep increases in incarceration rates in all states and territories?

And what is the Commonwealth doing, to provide “a national whole-of-government social justice approach, in co-operation with state and territory governments”?

[Reprinted from Tracker .]

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