Jail rates widening the gap, says Ah-See, Law Society

All governments need to fundamentally rethink the way they work with Aboriginal communities if they are to combat the deepening crisis of rising jail rates, according to the NSW Aboriginal Land Council.

NSWALC Chair Roy Ah-See said the billions of dollars governments poured each year into Australia’s prisons had only served to widen the gap for Aboriginal people.

His comments were supported by Law Society of NSW president, Gary Ulman, who said that good outcomes in some areas had been achieved – there had been no Aboriginal deaths in police custody since the introduction of the ALS NSW/ACT custody notification service – but the incarceration rate  had worsened since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody report was handed down 25 years ago.

The NSW prison population grew by 14 per last year and was now at a record high, and NSW continued to hold the dubious record for the highest number of Indigenous prisoners of any State or Territory, Mr Ulman said.

Following Pat Dodson’s sobering address to the National Press Club this week, Cr Ah-See said the number of Aboriginal people caught in the law and order treadmill continued to rise.

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia account for about 2 percent of the adult population yet make up an alarming 27 percent of the prisoner population,” he said.

“It’s time for policy-makers to concede that the system is fundamentally broken and to work in genuine partnership with Aboriginal people and organisations on community-centred alternatives to prison.

“This includes policies and programs based on justice reinvestment where power is devolved at the local level to invest in education, training, parole support, rehabilitation and community driven courts.”

Cr Ah-See said Local Aboriginal Land Councils in NSW were also ready to be part of the solution to reversing high imprisonment rates.

“The Land Rights system in New South Wales is uniquely placed to play a constructive role in addressing some of the factors that bring Aboriginal people in contact with the justice system.

“In New South Wales, Local Aboriginal Land Councils are able to claim certain lands as freehold title and many of our Local Aboriginal Land Councils use that land to connect people back to country, to provide training, jobs and get people back on their feet.

“If we are serious about confronting the national shame of rising Aboriginal imprisonment rates, government policies need to be informed by what Aboriginal people experience at the grassroots.

“For too long, too many Aboriginal families have had to deal with the consequences of policy failure through deaths in custody, suicide and ongoing trauma.”

Mr Ulman said significant drivers of Indigenous incarceration were laws that incarcerate people for default on driving related fines; the lack of non-custodial sentencing options in rural, regional and remote regions; and the impact of breaches of justice related procedures such as bail and AVOs.

Mandatory minimum penalties are also another key driver of high Indigenous incarceration rates, particularly where they involve alcohol related offences, he said.

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