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Changing the story of indigenous incarceration

Speeches in Parliament
Penny Wright 4 Dec 2013

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (13:15): I rise today to tell a story that is grim and shameful. But the ending has not been written yet, so it is possible that this story could finish with a good ending. As we are still in the story, it really depends on us.

I want to begin by acknowledging that I am making this speech in a parliament that is on the land of Ngunawal and Ngambri people. Everywhere we stand and walk and live in Australia is Aboriginal land. I feel both proud and privileged to be able to share this continent with Australia's first peoples, who have one of the oldest continuous cultures on this planet. But this is also a matter of poignancy for me, because I am very aware that there are far too many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in jail in Australia. Our first peoples are some of the most imprisoned peoples in the world. And the statistics relating to the incarceration rate for Aboriginal young people aged between 10 and 17 are particularly horrifying.

I will set the scene by going to some evidence before a Senate inquiry in Perth in April this year. This was an inquiry into the value of a justice reinvestment approach to criminal justice in Australia. Justice reinvestment is a response to the escalating rates of imprisoning people that we have been seeing in Western countries, including Australia, over some decades. It is an approach that looks at reducing crime, by strengthening the communities which give rise to the most offenders. Less crime means fewer victims and safer communities; it is good for everyone.

I have spoken on justice reinvestment before in this parliament, and I will come back to it. But first, this evidence came from Mr Peter Collins, the Director of Legal Services at the Aboriginal Legal Service of Western Australia. He said:

In 2005, I appeared for a 16-year-old boy from a place called Onslow who spent 12 days in custody for attempting to steal a $2.50 ice cream. In 2009 I appeared for a 12-year-old boy who had never been in trouble who was charged with receiving a Freddo frog worth 70c. He did not come to court, because his mum got the dates confused, and he was remanded in custody. The police eventually withdrew that charge but defended the decision to prosecute on the basis that 'it was technically correct'. In 2010 I appeared for a 16-year-old boy with a serious intellectual disability who had never been in trouble. He was charged with receiving a soft toy. He was given a bail curfew condition which his mum was unaware of. He was at his aunt's place when he should have been at home. He was arrested and taken into custody. The bail condition of the curfew was removed by the magistrate, but it was not recorded on the police computer. He was found out and about that night, remanded in custody and spent four days in custody-Friday through to Monday-before he was released again by a magistrate. In 2011, we appeared for an Aboriginal girl from Roebourne in the Pilbara who was charged with trespass. She was found on the weekend playing in playground equipment in the local primary school.

... There is every reason in the world for those charges to be diverted away from the system to keep children out of not only the court system but also, in many of these instances, the custodial environment as well.

There are alarming statistics behind this evidence. In Australia today we are locking up more people than ever before. Over the last 30 years, Australia's prison population has tripled-to around 30,000. It has been growing four times faster than the underlying population growth. This is bad enough, but there are two groups of Australians who are particularly affected by this increasing tendency to use prisons as a first rather than last resort. Although they make up just 2.5 per cent of the population, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians account for 26 per cent, over a quarter, of the adult prison population. Australia's Indigenous people are one of the most incarcerated peoples in the world. On current figures, Indigenous adults are 14 times more likely to be imprisoned than their non-Indigenous counterparts.

But it is the statistics about the imprisonment of our Indigenous young people which are most distressing. In some jurisdictions they make up approximately half of the total juvenile detention population. In Australia, on average, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people aged between 10 and 17 are 31 times more likely to be in detention than their non-Indigenous peers.

These soaring incarceration rates come with an enormous cost, both economic and social. In dollar terms, prisons are phenomenally expensive. Australia spends about $3 billion dollars a year in keeping people in prison. It currently costs over $300 a day or $80,000 a year to keep someone in prison. What else could we do with this money? This increase in criminal justice spending is actually unsustainable. It is this which is causing policymakers around the world to reconsider the opportunity cost of prisons. The fiscal reality is: the more we spend on incarceration, the less we have available for other essential services like health and education.

The Northern Territory is a perfect case study. In the NT about half of all the juveniles in detention are Indigenous, but less than half of Indigenous primary school students are achieving national minimum reading standards, compared to more than 85 per cent of non-Indigenous students. This year, the NT turned down the offer of $300 million of Gonski funding from the previous government and went on to cut $16 million from their schools budget. Instead, they increased spending on law and order and on building a new prison, costing half a billion dollars, which will already be 83 beds short when it opens next year. Their choice has been imprisonment over education, but where will that lead?

It is important to remember that the real price of spiralling incarceration rates is not just the cost to taxpayers of building more prisons. There is also the long-term impact that imprisonment has on each prisoner, on their family and on their community. Each time a person is imprisoned they are not out in the community doing their parenting, participating, making a contribution. As pointed out by the Australian Youth Affairs Coalition in its submission to the Senate inquiry, the costs to young people, who are often Australia's most vulnerable and disadvantaged, are far-reaching. They said:

The true costs of incarceration far exceed the per day costs of housing young people in detention. Incarceration often results in the loss of employment and income, further disengagement with education or positive relationships, can exacerbate debt issues, and result in the loss of housing, such that homelessness becomes an issue on release.

The reality is that, despite these costs, prisons do not actually prevent crime-they come into play after a crime has already been committed and they are often only a temporary solution. People usually return to the communities they came from and they commonly leave prison in an even more dysfunctional state than when they first went in.

According to the Australian Institute of Criminology, about 25 per cent of prisoners will be reconvicted within three months of being released from prison and about 40 per cent will be reimprisoned within two years. As things currently stand, the statistics show that offenders in Australia leave prison more likely to commit future crimes and more likely to commit more serious crimes. So, on all measures of success, prisons are a failed institution. There is no evidence that prisons are working.

It is clear that a new approach is needed, and this is where Justice Reinvestment comes in. This involves a shift away from spending in prisons and into communities. It works by taking a portion of the public funds that would be spent on future imprisonment costs and diverting that money back into communities with a high concentration of offenders. That is because there is very clear evidence that a large number of offenders come from, and return to, a relatively small number of disadvantaged communities. Investing in those communities will give the best results, the best 'bang for buck', when it comes to reducing crime. This investment funds programs and services which then work to overcome the underlying causes of crime in those communities.

'Mapping', using demographic information, helps determines the neighbourhoods that will benefit most from the additional investment in prevention, early intervention, diversionary programs and rehabilitation. The communities in question, including victims of crime and families of offenders, have a central role in the design and implementation these local initiatives. The results are then rigorously evaluated to make sure they are effective. Yes, it is really an old idea, that front-end investment saves back-end costs-or 'prevention is better than cure'-but it comes with a new evidence base and a new rigour, and it works. We have seen from the United States, most notably in Texas, that if Justice Reinvestment is properly implemented it can reduce crime and imprisonment, improve public safety and strengthen our most disadvantaged communities, all without breaking the budget.

Texas is often used as an example because it is one of the most unlikely, and exciting, success stories. In 2007 it had one of the highest imprisonment rates in the United States, and officials estimated they would need to spend $2 billion over the next five years building new prisons. Instead, they invested $241 million in alternatives such as alcohol and drug treatment programs, improved probation and parole services and nurse-family partnerships to support young mothers in disadvantaged areas. They generated savings of $444 million in just one year. Six years on, crime rates continue to drop dramatically and growth in the prison population has slowed almost to a halt. Justice Reinvestment has been taken up by 17 US states and, most fascinating, it has been embraced by both Democrat and Republican politicians. That is because it makes financial and social sense.

If they can do it in the US, can we do it here? This was the very question addressed by the Senate's Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee when it inquired into the value of a Justice Reinvestment approach in Australia earlier this year. The conclusions were very encouraging. While acknowledging the differences between the US situation and ours, the committee strongly endorsed the principle of Justice Reinvestment and supported further investment to explore the potential of Justice Reinvestment for Australia. The majority report recommended that the Commonwealth government take a leadership role through COAG by funding trials and establishing an independent, non-political advisory body to assist states and territories who are interested in taking up a Justice Reinvestment approach

Over the last few years, the concept of Justice Reinvestment has been gaining momentum in Australia. There are coalitions of groups now in New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Queensland, Western Australia, the Northern Territory and the ACT, all strongly advocating for its implementation. The most advanced project is the New South Wales Justice Reinvestment Campaign for Aboriginal Young People, which was launched by Governor Marie Bashir and boasts a long list of high-profile supporters and champions. At the national level, many organisations, including the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples and ANTaR, are all playing an active role in advocating for Justice Reinvestment as a meaningful way to address the shameful overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australian prisons. There is also ongoing valuable academic research being conducted in Australia, including at the ANU National Centre for Indigenous Studies and the University of New South Wales's Justice Reinvestment Project.

The imperatives, both financial and moral, to move away from our imprisonment culture are very clear. If Australia's prison population continues to grow at an average rate of four per cent per year across the nation, we will need to add 10,000 new beds to the prison estate by 2020, at an estimated cost of over $5 billon. The human costs will be immeasurable.

That is the story so far. How it ends is up to us. We have a choice. We can choose to turn off a policy path, one that we have been following for 25 years and that has clearly been an abject failure. We can turn towards a smart approach, based on good evidence, that will actually reduce the number of people we lock up and that will also improve disadvantaged communities.

But that would mean rejecting a beguilingly and simplistic 'tough on crime' mantra, which is so tempting for politicians in the throes of an election campaign or for newspaper editors who want to sell more papers. It would require a truly principled approach.

Still, if the Democrats and Republicans in the United States can put aside their differences and stand together, then surely we can do that here. But it would not be a bipartisan approach. In this parliament it would be a tripartisan approach. As an Australian Greens senator I am committed to finding and working with like-minded politicians across the parliament. Just imagine the young lives we would transform if we could just start to turn the statistics around. It would be a good ending.

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