If I were asked to outline a plan to ensure increasing incarceration, both
generally and of vulnerable groups, I would just point to the Northern
Territory of Australia. No need to ; there is only 623 per 100,000. The
NT sits at 847 per 100,000 adults, nearly four times that of its nearest
Australian rival, Western Australia.
Last year in the Territory, 86% of those in prison and 96% of those in
juvenile detention were Indigenous.
The daily average number of prisoners has more than doubled in the last 20
years. By 2010 the growth in the NT prison population necessitated the
construction of a 1,000-bed,With its opening, there is one prison bed for
every 103 adults. Despite a recent report of lower-than-anticipated
increases in prisoner numbers, based on growth over the last five years the
new jail will reach capacity by 2018.
Adopt punitive policing and sentencing policies
As with many jurisdictions, “tough on crime” rhetoric dominates in the
Territory. The mandatory sentencing regime introduced by the Country
Liberal Party in the 1990s kick-started significant growth in prisoner
numbers. Daily averages grew by
Despite early promise, including removing much of the mandatory
sentencing regime, the decade-long Labor government also contributed
significantly to these trends. Restrictive bail laws have increased numbers
in custody, with 38% of those entering an adult prison and 60% of those
entering youth detention unsentenced on reception.
The remaining mandatory sentencing provisions, for serious violence and
aggravated property offences, mean that prison is the only option available
in many cases.
And while undoubtedly more people are in prison, our community is
certainly not safer. Recorded assaultsThe ineffectiveness of jail in
addressing violent crime (indeed most crime) is also glaringly apparent
when they have served a previous prison term.
Deny Indigenous people access to appropriate services
Despite attempts to Close the Gap, Indigenous people living in remote areas
of the Territory do not enjoy access to the same services as non-Indigenous
people living in similarly sized communities.
Growing up in a town of 60 in rural Queensland, my family had access to a
range of government services. These included a post office, a permanently
staffed police station, a local primary school and a high school a short bus
ride away. I cannot think of a similarly sized Indigenous community
enjoying such facilities.
This lack of services has direct and indirect effects on rates of Indigenous
incarceration. Without identification requirements for a driver’s licence,
with no licensing or vehicle registration services and no public transport,
Indigenous people, far more so than non-Indigenous people, are jailed for
minor driving offences. While recent reforms have reduced these numbers,
a not insignificant number of Aboriginal people have a criminal record for
Community-based orders are often unavailable in remote areas as there are
no programs or Correctional Services staff to supervise them. Due to
overcrowding and poor housing, Aboriginal offenders are also unlikely to
meet the suitability requirements of a Home Detention Order (HDO).
While access to in-prison programs is low overall, access to culturally
appropriate programs is even lower. With a few notable exceptions,
programs are developed using Western psychological models and evidence
about non-Indigenous offenders. Their suitability and success for
Indigenous offenders are rarely evaluated.
Yet it’s ironically true, as one senior Corrections official once remarked,
that it’s hard to see why we have special programs for Indigenous prisoners.
Indeed, Indigenous-specific programming is all that’s needed.
Embrace alcohol consumption as a core social value
If largely unfettered access to alcohol is to be a problem then Territorians
must accept that high levels of violence are here to stay. The association
between excessive alcohol consumption and violence is long established, At
least in the Territory are alcohol-related.
Public health education and evidence-based programs can play important
roles in reducing alcohol-related harm. While such programs should be
funded appropriately, supply restrictions must also form part of our
The 2007 NT introduced identification requirements for alcohol purchases
above $100 but coupled this with criminalising those who consumed
alcohol on Aboriginal land. The Banned Drinker Register showed early
promise through a system that prevented alcohol purchases by those on
certain court orders, but partisan politics brought it to an end in 2012.
Ignore evidence of what works in child protection and
Based on the growing body of evidence that child protection involvement,
even notification to a child welfare system, is linked to involvement in the
criminal justice system, there are increasingly troubled times ahead.
child protection notifications increased by 30% and the number of
Indigenous children in out-of-home care by 26%. At the same time, the rate
of completed child protection investigations decreased.
Youth justice fares equally badly. Diversionary programs are underfunded
and exclude young people without a responsible adult. There are few
programs for young people in detention or in the community, particularly
in areas such as violent and sexual offending.
The failure of governments to meet the need for a suitable youth facility
means young people are now locked up in a jail deemed unfit for adults;
Correctional Services described the facility as
Both systems are effectively driving young people’s further and deeper
involvement in the criminal justice system. Young people are remanded in
custody, sometimes for weeks, because no parent or family member comes
to court, yet child protection maintains the young person is not in need of
Criminal charges are routinely brought against young people in residential
facilities, rather than working through behavioural issues as we might in
our own homes. Children in care have unpaid fines incurring interest and
attracting further penalty, with no way of paying off these debts.
I offer no solutions here. When we decide we want different outcomes – a
safer community, fewer people in jail – those solutions can be found in the
thousands of words spoken and written by dozens of Aboriginal people and
organisations, lawyers, academics and others, over many, many years.