Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research leadership is fundamental to breaking the cycle of the over-incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, according to Dr Megan Williams, a Senior Research Fellow at the Aboriginal Health and Wellbeing Research team at Western Sydney University and a descendant of the Wiradjuri people of the NSW Riverine.
Governments will become more accountable to communities and taxpayers when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers help to lead governments’ evaluations of their legislation, policies and programs, and help to undertake continuous quality improvements within services, she says.
In the second of her series of articles for the crowd-funded #JustJustice project, Williams says that prisoners, victims of crime and taxpayers will benefit from reduced incarceration rates when governments implement the evidence on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ approaches to holistic health care, develop collective healing programs and address the underlying determinants of incarceration, such as poverty.
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Megan Williams writes:
Mounting international evidence now shows that incarceration contributes to still more incarceration. Incarceration causes poor health and wellbeing, which erodes an individual’s social and economic capacity to integrate into the community post-prison release.
Evidence also suggests that whole communities are damaged when their members are incarcerated, and that one of the biggest risk factors for incarceration is juvenile detention, which itself is influenced by parental history of incarceration. In Australia, the underlying reasons for incarceration can be prevented and addressed such as through community-based support programs.
Countless times Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have shed light on ‘what works’ to reduce ‘acts intended to cause injury’, ‘unlawful entry with intent’, sexual assault, driver licence offences, and breaches of state orders for which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are often imprisoned. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have participated in program design and delivery, policy development and critique, research, advocacy and government advisory committee roles to address these issues.
The types of strategies and evidence that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people believe work seem to have been selectively ignored by successive Australian federal and state governments over the past decades.
Gaps in evidence and action
Overwhelmingly missing too are governments’ own contributions to an evidence base. Very little evaluation has occurred of their legislative, policy and program directives in the criminal justice system. The doubling in prison rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples over 10 years is sure evidence of the failure of current approaches.
Data about prison populations and re-incarceration rates are poorly reported, and information about post-prison release outcomes is almost entirely missing – despite data on all these issues being routinely collected through criminal justice system administration processes. Intersectoral collaboration is often called for to prevent crime and promote the well-being of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, however very little reporting on intersections between government departments to improve justice outcomes has occurred.
Instead of governments indicating how they are improving the implementation and evaluation of their own legal and policy responsibilities, they again ask Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders and service providers, “What do you think should be done?”
But the implementation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s solutions has been extremely limited. Bureaucrats argue they need more evidence to support what Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people recommend, stating ‘Our hands are tied until you can do so’.
The desired ‘gold standard’ evidence, gathered through assessment instruments, ‘Indigenised’ surveys and one-off intervention testing might elsewhere be revered as objective and reliable, but often inadequately represent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ worldviews, experiences and knowledge about ‘what works’.
What works for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples has been available since the origins of the new Australian nation. Founding leaders of Australia’s legal, health and welfare systems had an opportunity to build on Indigenous knowledges about how they had maintained individual and collective well-being, without prisons or intergenerational poverty.
Instead, the perception of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as inferior humans seems to have prevailed, perpetuated by government policies of segregation from and later assimilation into Western culture within the last 100 years.
Racism is a daily experience for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The lack of parity with the mainstream population in education, employment, income or parliamentary representation clearly signals that discriminatory policies persist.
While the federal Parliament may have formally apologised to the Stolen Generations for past policies of forced child removal, no obvious amendments have been made. Instead, evidence now shows higher child removal rates than ever before, thus perpetuating a cycle of disadvantage and trauma. These are the types of root causes of incarceration that require addressing, which often underscore the reasons for which individual Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are arrested and sentenced.
Perhaps the most extreme example of evidence being ignored relates to socio-economic disadvantage, with the key underlying factor for over-incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people being poverty. Regardless of cultural identity as Indigenous, similar rates of incarceration are seen among other impoverished people around the world.
Addressing the accountability gap
Selective use of evidence, overlooking the root causes of incarceration, and ignoring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s evidence all contribute to lack of accountability, and lack of progress.
To make progress, investment in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research leadership to establish a more robust evidence base is urgently required.
Australia’s National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Research Institute, the Lowitja Institute, privileges Indigenous research approaches, and draws on a wide range of research tools necessary to understand complex health issues and determinants of health, including criminal justice system engagement.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers can help lead governments’ evaluations of their legislation, policies and programs, to improve accountability.
They can also undertake continuous quality improvements within services, partner with non-Indigenous organisations, and build the capacity of other researchers and policy makers to more respectfully take into account cultural protocols, values and perspectives.
Expanding the evidence on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ approaches to holistic health care, developing collective healing programs and addressing underlying determinants will be benefit anyone in the criminal justice system – prisoners, victims and taxpayers included.
• Dr Megan Williams is a Senior Research Fellow at the Aboriginal Health and Wellbeing Research team at Western Sydney University. Through her father’s family she is a descendent of the Wiradjuri people of the NSW riverine. She has worked for 20 years in community health, evaluation and research, and completed a PhD investigating the role of social support to prevent re-incarceration among urban Aboriginal people.
• Read the first article in her JustJustice series here: Sandy, a dear friend condemned by harmful systems.
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You can read more than 60 #JustJustice articles published to date here.
Croakey acknowledges and thanks all those who donated to support #JustJustice (see their names here). We also thank and acknowledge our premium sponsors, the Jesuit Social Services, and Frank Meany of One Vision.