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Going around in circles (Part 2)

Part Twenty-five of a history of European occupation, rule, and brutal imperialism of Indigenous Australia, by Dr George Venturini.

The high numbers of Indigenous People in prison has consequences for virtually all Indigenous People. It impacts on the individuals who are incarcerated, as well as their families and communities. Children with a parent in prison are particularly vulnerable, increasing their risk of contact with the justice system later in life.

Incarceration can also lead to loss of culture, identity and connection to the land – the latter being of extraordinary spiritual value to the Indigenous People. The cycle of disadvantage, poverty and incarceration continues, making communities less safe in the long run.

As well as the human impact, the Report also finds that high incarceration rates significantly affects the Australian economy. The Report calls for action to address this unfair, unsafe and unaffordable situation. It shows that reducing disproportionate Indigenous incarceration rates is the right and the fair thing to do, that it will increase community safety, and that it will contribute to reducing expenditure of Australian governments.

As the Report documents: Indigenous men are imprisoned at 11 times the rate of the general male population; Indigenous women are imprisoned at 15 times the rate of the general female population; and Indigenous youth are imprisoned at 25 times the rate of non-indigenous youth. (ABS (2016). Corrective services, Australia, June quarter 2016. Canberra: ABS; AIHW 2017. Youth justice in Australia 2015–16. AIHW Bulletin no. 139. Cat. no. AUS 211. Canberra: AIHW).

The five partners came together to show their commitment to face the issues and to make a new contribution to the existing knowledge base. Their Report coincides with three significant milestones in Australia’s reconciliation progress: the fiftieth anniversary of the 1967 referendum, the twenty fifth anniversary of the Mabo decision, and the twentieth anniversary of the Bringing them home report.

Through their partnership the five organisations leveraged the skills of each of them to contribute to the existing knowledge base and to increase awareness of Indigenous incarceration in four ways:

  1. Economic modelling to quantify the current and projected economic costs of Indigenous incarceration rates (Report: section 3).
  2. Detailed research to identify effective ways to reduce Indigenous incarceration rates (Report: section 4).
  3. Modelling the impact that implementing a range of initiatives would have on the costs of Indigenous incarceration (Report: section 6). The partners did not undertake a full cost benefit analysis, which would be important future work.
  4. A public awareness campaign to communicate the findings of the project and the need for urgent and major action to deal with high Indigenous incarceration rates.

The partners hoped that their work would also inform two major government reviews which were at the time underway: the Australian Law Reform Commission’s Inquiry into the incarceration rate of Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory.

The partners looked beyond the justice system to identify the key drivers of high Indigenous incarceration rates, and to make a case for a holistic approach to the issue. As an ongoing consequence of colonisation and dispossession, and the social impacts which followed, Indigenous People are the most disadvantaged group in Australia on a number of indicators. (Australian Government Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (2017). Closing the Gap: Prime Minister’s Report 2017).

Research conducted by the partners shows that there is a strong link between intergenerational disadvantage, poverty and incarceration.

Tackling economic and social disadvantage, increasing income equality and improving access to high-quality health, education, employment and housing can directly influence rates of offending. That is why the Report takes a holistic approach and emphasises the importance of dealing with the key drivers of Indigenous incarceration. True, there are factors within the justice system which, if dealt with, could help close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous rates of incarceration, yet the key drivers which lead to offending and contact with the justice system in the first place have the greatest potential for impact in the longer term.

The Report’s economic modelling shows that Indigenous incarceration is costing the Australian economy $7.9 billion per year – and this cost is rising. This comprises whole of economy impacts including loss of productive output (economic costs) as well as separating out the direct costs to governments (fiscal costs). If nothing is done to deal with disproportionately high rates of Indigenous incarceration, this cost will rise to $ 9.7 billion per year in 2020 and $ 19.8 billion per year in 2040 (Report: section 3). Closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous rates of incarceration would generate savings to the economy of $18.9 billion per year in 2040. Further detail on the partners’ economic modelling is provided in sections 3 and 6 of the Report.

While such modelling shows that investing in a range of initiatives will reduce the rate of incarceration, this alone will not close the gap. Action is required across a broader range of areas. Reducing the rates at which Indigenous children, young people, men and women are imprisoned in Australia is a complex challenge. It is clear from the available evidence that there are no simple or straightforward solutions, and the issue requires a multi-pronged approach. Evaluations show that initiatives and programmes exist which are effective in reducing the incarceration rates. Despite this, a programme or initiative-based response alone is not enough. Indigenous People must have control, ownership and involvement in the solutions. Providing the Australian community with the facts which sit behind this challenge is also important.

Facing the fundamental reasons for Indigenous incarceration such as poverty, disadvantage and experiences of trauma requires broader system reform.

The partners recommend:

  1. Self-determination: Indigenous people have a right to determine their own political, economic, social and cultural development. This human right is an essential approach to overcoming Indigenous disadvantage and includes building connections to culture and a strong role for Aboriginal Community Controlled Originations (ACCOs) in the formation of any solutions.
  2. System reform: The key causes of over-representation of Indigenous People in prisons will not be addressed by a single initiative or programme. Instead, whole of system solutions are required across a range of traditional government policy and portfolio areas, including education, health, human services, welfare and justice.
  3. Law reform: This includes consideration of changes to laws and legal policy settings which contribute to the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in prison.
  4. Increased community awareness: Despite landmark reports, inquiries and reviews such as the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, the level of understanding in the non-Indigenous community of the issues, causes, rates and consequences of overrepresentation of Indigenous men, women, children and young people remains limited. “The facts – says the Report – need to be unlocked.” In order for change to happen, there needs to be broader community awareness.
  5. Initiatives and programmes: In addition to broader system level reform, specific initiatives and programmatic responses are required – particularly Indigenous community controlled and led initiatives.

Concerning self-determination, the evidence is clear that community involvement in the design and delivery of programmes is important. This requires more than consultation and includes community ownership and control. Across each state and territory, ACCOs have been established to deliver culturally aware and responsive health, legal, housing, childcare and other human services to Indigenous People. These community owned, culturally aware and responsive environments provide a safe setting for Indigenous people to access services as there is long-standing trust and respect between ACCOs and communities.

The current reliance on mainstream services needs to shift, with the ultimate aim to facilitate a result in which Indigenous communities own and deliver more of their own services and initiatives. Under such a plan, ACCOs would play a key role.

As for a system reform, research points to the interlinked nature of the causes and the factors leading to over-representation of Indigenous people in prison. These include poverty, disadvantage, lower levels of educational attainment, higher incidence of mental and cognitive disabilities, higher incidence of involvement with the child protection system, lack of employment opportunities and access to housing. System-wide reform is required. This includes accountability for the achievement of outcomes consistent with the broader Closing the Gap targets.

In 2016 the Australian Senate passed a motion which called on Commonwealth, state and territory governments to adopt a set of justice targets aimed at closing the gap in rates of incarceration between Indigenous and non-Indigenous persons for which all levels of government should be held accountable. (Australian Parliamentary Debates, Senate, no. 6, 19 April 2016, at 3052).

In Victoria, the Northern Territory, and the Australian Capital Territory Indigenous justice targets have been introduced. (Victorian Department of Planning and Community Development (2012). Victorian Aboriginal Affairs Framework 2013-2018. Melbourne: State Government of Victoria; ACT Government (2015). ACT Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Justice Partnership 2015-18. Canberra: ACT Government; NT Department of Local Government and Community Services (2016). Aboriginal affairs: monitoring, evaluation and reporting framework. NT Government. Note: Non-Indigenous specific justice targets have also been introduced in New South Wales and South Australia).

What is needed is a nationally agreed set of Closing the Gap justice targets. This will support better cooperation, help with the development and monitoring of long term strategies and investments, enable a focus on outcomes, and help drive greater accountability to achieve reduced rates of Indigenous incarceration across Australia. In addition, improving the collection of, and access to, good quality data to help monitor and track progress is required.

As part of a blueprint for change, Change the Record has proposed that Australian governments work with Indigenous communities and organisations to set justice targets, and reduce the disproportionate rates of violence experienced by Indigenous people. The target that Change the Record proposes is to halve the gap in the rates of imprisonment between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people by 2030, before closing the gap in 2040. (Change the Record Coalition (2015). Blueprint for change. The Change the Record Coalition Steering Committee, Reconciliation.Org).

In addition, many Indigenous People are reluctant to obtain essential services from non-Indigenous providers due to limited cultural competence and experiences of racism within many service providers. These experiences can lead to future and continued avoidance of mainstream service providers. (Weightman, M (2013), The role of Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services in Indigenous health, Australian Medical Student Journal).

While Indigenous communities should ideally own and deliver their own services and initiatives where this is not possible, non-Indigenous services need to be culturally aware and responsive to increase the likelihood of Indigenous People accessing services, and the effectiveness of these services.

As to the need for law reform, the partners said that law and justice system reform is a critical element in the response required to reduce Indigenous incarceration rates. The Attorney-General has asked the Australian Law Reform Commission to examine the factors leading to the over-representation of Indigenous People in the prison system, and consider possible law reforms in response.

Suggesting increased community awareness, the partners concluded that Unlocking the facts and building community awareness is the first step in securing change. They believe there is potential to build greater awareness based on facts. These include the social injustice, public safety and economic impacts of not resolving a situation which can be used by individuals and communities to support and advocate for reform to reach the change required.

Initiatives to respond to Indigenous incarceration are often associated with custodial or justice settings. While these initiatives are important and play a role in assisting those who have already come into contact with the justice system, the partners’ analysis on the key causes of Indigenous incarceration suggests that a wider range of initiatives is required. In the Report the partners modelled the impact of implementing a range of initiatives which could reduce the costs of Indigenous incarceration. (Report: section 6).

The initiatives were chosen for the rigour of their evaluation data and are not suggested to represent the most successful initiatives, although they do have well documented quantifiable success. These initiatives are also not representative of all possible initiatives which could be implemented, and be effective at reducing the rates of Indigenous incarceration. In summary, the partners’ modelling demonstrates that:

1) The cumulative set-up, entailing investing in all four categories of initiatives, is the most effective as it reduces both the new entry rate and rate of recidivism over time.

2) The least effective impact the partners modelled was the prison system and post release period. This is because when scaled across Australia the effect size is small and only affects the recidivism rate of people who had offended and have already entered the system.

3) The impact of targeted interventions begin to take effect sooner. The effect impacts on both the rate at which juveniles offend as adults and also the recidivism rate of adult offenders.

4) Universal prevention and early intervention become more effective than the prison system and post release condition in the longer term. This is because the effect size is larger as both conditions affect the number of people entering the prison system for the first time each year whereas the prison system situation only influences the recidivism rate.

Part of the partners’ approach to the economic modelling included estimating the cost savings of investing in a range of initiatives across each of the four categories. To develop findings from economic modelling, the partners sought evidence of robust evaluations of initiatives and responses. In undertaking their analysis they sought to identify and include Indigenous-specific initiatives in the modelling which were robustly evaluated.

However, the lack of sufficient data in relation to Indigenous-specific and culturally aware and responsive initiatives necessitated the use of some non-Indigenous initiatives. The need to improve the quality of, and access to, data relating to key drivers and pathways relating to Indigenous incarceration have been reported elsewhere. (Change the Record Coalition (2015). Blueprint for change. The Change the Record Coalition Steering Committee, Reconciliation.Org).

The five organisations, PricewaterhouseCoopers – PwC, PwC’s Indigenous Consulting – PIC, Change the Record, the Richmond Football Club and the (KGI) Korin Gamadji Institute – KGI, submitted six recommendations:

Recommendation 1

The right of Indigenous communities to self-determination should underpin the development, implementation and ownership of strategies and initiatives to address the high rates of Indigenous incarceration. Real change requires a strong partnership and genuine relationship between funders, the justice sector, the broader service system and the Indigenous community including Indigenous organisations. This can only be achieved when Indigenous People have a meaningful stake in the implementation, design, delivery and evaluation of solutions. A practical first step to achieve a more meaningful role, and voice, for Indigenous communities in the implementation of strategies and initiatives is for all governments to implement policies which allow for greater self-determination, including policies which make Indigenous organisations the preferred provider for Indigenous services.

Recommendation 2

A national set of Closing the Gap justice targets should be established to encourage a focus on outcomes, and to improve accountability by making visible any progress, or lack thereof, in reducing the rates at which Indigenous People are incarcerated. The Commonwealth and state and territory Governments should initiate this process through consultation with the justice sector, Indigenous organisations, and other key service sector interested parties to agree on a set of national justice targets as part of Closing the Gap.

Recommendation 3

Non-Indigenous services need to be culturally aware and responsive to increase access to, and the effectiveness of, services to reduce the rates of Indigenous incarceration. Many funding agreements and grants already specify that they must deliver culturally aware and responsive services for Indigenous People. This needs to be made more transparent with funded services being required more comprehensively to demonstrate how their services are culturally aware and responsive, and being accessed by Indigenous People. Funding bodies should be required to report on how the agencies they fund to deliver services on their behalf are delivering culturally aware and responsive services, and that action is being taken to address any shortcomings.

Recommendation 4

There needs to be a greater focus, and investment in, prevention and early intervention initiatives which address the key drivers of Indigenous incarceration. To achieve change in this area, it is critical that there be investment in prevention and early intervention initiatives and programmes, which will deliver significant results over the long term. The environment needs to be adjusted to give licence to decision makers to invest in prevention and early intervention. This requires a sustained education campaign to broaden and deepen community understanding of key drivers which lead to Indigenous People coming into contact with the justice system in the first place. To start this process a summit of key interested parties, led and convened by Indigenous organisations, should be held to identify and set priorities for innovative future investment and public awareness. An existing opportunity for this, which could be built upon, is the ongoing work of the Redfern Statement Alliance, led by Indigenous peak bodies.

Recommendation 5

There needs to be an enhanced focus on initiatives such as through-care and re-integration programmes which reduce the likelihood of reoffending. For those who are imprisoned, there needs to be greater opportunities to access and participate in programmes and initiatives which improve the ability of individuals to reintegrate into the community and contribute meaningfully. These need to be tailored specifically for Indigenous People. An initial step would be for governments to work closely with Indigenous organisations to identify, properly design and implement initiatives which reduce the likelihood of reoffending.

Recommendation 6

Greater innovation, increased investment and better evaluation of new and existing initiatives are required to improve access to reliable data and add to the existing knowledge base on initiatives which have the potential to reduce the rates of Indigenous incarceration. To bring the sustained focus needed, an independent, data and research central agency with Indigenous oversight could be established. The role of this body would be to coordinate, commission, review and evaluate initiatives and programmes designed to reduce the rates of incarceration for Indigenous People focusing on evidence and impact. The central agency could also focus on improving the quality of data the better to support decision making and measurement of progress. This entity should have flexible and sustained funding to invest in innovation, both within the justice system, and solutions which sit outside of it. It should be a clearing house for ‘what works’. The entity would not deliver initiatives itself, but would commission others to do so. The performance of such an agency should be monitored and tied to Closing the Gap justice targets.

It is important to acknowledge that this does not mean that Indigenous-specific initiatives are not, and cannot be effective. Rather it suggests that investment is required in building the evidence base given the failure appropriately to fund evaluations, matched with the short-term nature of funding cycles.

The partners felt that they had demonstrated their commitment to action by establishing a new programme aimed at young Indigenous girls. Reducing the rates at which Indigenous People are imprisoned is a complex issue which will require the combined efforts of the public sector, the private sector, NGOs and Indigenous organisations working together. In addition to the Report, the partners were also showing their commitment to practical action in this area by joining to establish a pilot programme, the Girls Football Academy. Indigenous women are currently the fastest growing cohort of the incarcerated population in Australia. Keeping Indigenous girls in school will reduce their likelihood of coming into contact with the justice system, yet there are few programmes specifically designed for this group. (Higgins, D, and Davis, K (2014), Law and justice: prevention and early intervention programs for Indigenous youth).

The Girls Football Academy will initially focus on working with young Indigenous girls across Years 7 to 12 at four to six schools across Victoria and Western Australia for a pilot period of two years. The key objective of the programme is to improve the education outcomes and overall well-being of young Indigenous women, and therefore reduce the risk of contact with the criminal justice system. This programme will harness the power of sport in improving outcomes for Indigenous People.

PricewaterhouseCoopers and PwC’s Indigenous Consulting have been working on a pro bono basis with the Richmond Football Club and the Korin Gamadji Institute as well as the Wirrpanda Foundation and the West Coast Eagles Football Club to develop a business case and secure support and funding for implementation of the Girls Football Academy. This collaborative approach is intended to ensure the success and reach of the programme across Western Australia and Victoria, with the intention of expanding the programme into other states and territories in the future.

On the occasion of the publication of the Report the Law Council of Australia President Fiona McLeod, S.C. said that achieving reconciliation should be considered a national priority. She said that reconciliation “runs hand-in-hand” with efforts to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous People.

“As we reflect on National Reconciliation Week, there remains a critical need to address the widening justice gap. Indigenous incarceration rates are continuing to rise and all governments share responsibility,” Ms McLeod said.

“The PwC Report makes a range of excellent evidence-based recommendations that align with Law Council positions. These include identifying opportunities for Indigenous self-determination, designing better through-care and reintegration programs to reduce recidivism, improving cultural awareness, investing more in prevention and early intervention, and establishing hard targets to measure national progress.” (Rachel McFadden, Indigenous Incarceration Set to Cost $20B by 2040, Probono Australia, 29 May 2017).

Actually, the PwC Report was a very well documented up-dating of the Indigenous People’s condition – but hardly anything new, really.

Continued Monday with: Government’s institutional brutality (Part 1)

Previous instalment: Going around in circles (Part 1)

Dr Venturino Giorgio (George) Venturini, formerly an avvocato at the Court of Appeal of Bologna, devoted some sixty years to study, practice, teach, write and administer law at different places in four continents.



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  1. New England Cocky

    WHITE AUSTRALIA HAS A BLACK HISTORY! Lots and lots of talkfests and little following action to rectify the inherent racism of the Australian society.

  2. wam

    It is a difficult read, Giorgio because my mum and I lived in a tent in grandma’s back yard and I went to ethleton for a few years til dad came home. So unlike, laud, I knew what Aborigines looked like. I would like to say that I learnt a lot but the next term I was quietly transferred to Le Fevre. After a few years on Yorke peninsula we shifted into the trust home area woodville west. The treatment by the courts was very different between an address of woodville without the west and the trust homes. Even within the trust homes well off were given non-custodial but the poor or catholic copped a couple of years reform school.
    The stats used (11, 15, 25) are horrific but if the criteria were socio-economically based would there be much difference? I think the figures would drop dramatically.
    Having said that I have family and friends in education and the police all of us could do with a lesson in prejudice. After the politicians and the judges.

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