The National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples has joined other Indigenous organisations in calling for the creation of specific justice targets under Closing the Gap to address the “alarming and growing” over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the justice system.
Congress Co-Chair Kirstie Parker, who is also Co-Chair of the Close the Gap Campaign, observed that in Opposition, Senator Nigel Scullion had said the Coalition was in favour of a Closing the Gap target around justice.
“Congress urges Senator Scullion, now as Indigenous Affairs Minister, to follow through on this commitment,” Ms Parker said on 3 March.
“There is nothing to fear from setting realistic nationally agreed targets. Clearly, such targets alone will not solve the problem of over-representation of our peoples in the justice system. However, they’re a crucial starting point and tool to drive action in this area, especially given significant differences between States and Territories in relation to incarceration rates and the factors influencing them.
“The over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the criminal justice system is both cause and effect for the poor state of health, education and employment of so many of Indigenous families and communities.”
The Chairperson of National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (NATSILS), Shane Duffy said addressing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander incarceration rates was “as critical a part of the equation as progress in education, health and housing” to close the gap on Indigenous disadvantage. (See NATSILS Media Release – 3 March 2014 [PDF] )
“We are disappointed that the Government has wavered from their previous commitment and call on the Prime Minister to honour his Government’s promises and commence consultations with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander experts from relevant sectors to design appropriate justice targets and the priorities for an associated national partnership agreement,” Mr Duffy said.
“Mr Abbott has an opportunity to show some real leadership here and while we recognise that progress will not be made overnight, what we need from the Prime Minister is long-term vision, steadfast commitment and action that goes beyond good intentions.”
Mr Abbott was criticised by a number of agencies for not addressing the issue of over-representation of Indigenous people in the criminal and juvenile justice systems in his 2014 Closing the Gap progress report tabled on 12 February.
The Aboriginal Legal Service (NSW/ACT) said many of the current targets would be hard to achieve until justice targets were also included in Closing the Gap.
“Today, Australia’s national shame is the mass imprisonment of Aboriginal people, particularly young people. Australia’s Aboriginal children are detained at the world’s highest rates,” the legal service’s CEO Phil Naden said.
“More than half of the young people in detention today (over 52%) are Aboriginal, and most are unsentenced…We need justice targets to address the horrific mass imprisonment of Aboriginal people in the criminal justice system.”
However, chairman of the Prime Minister’s Indigenous Advisory Council, Warren Mundine, has told News Limited that he does not believe reducing levels of Indigenous incarceration should become a formal Closing the Gap target.
Mr Mundine told The Australian newspaper the council’s focus must be on the missing and disengaged Indigenous young people who were neither in school nor work.
“There’s about 40,000 to 50,000 people not in the Centrelink system or in employment so what they’re doing is they’re living off their families,” Mr Mundine said.
“We’ve got to put in place processes to make sure they don’t go into criminal activity.”