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Beyond meaningless targets: calling for real action on prisons, policing and injustice

Introduction by Croakey: Widespread anger and outrage greeted the news yesterday that 2093 was being considered as a target date for achieving parity in incarceration rates for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and non-Indigenous people.

Minister Ken Wyatt told ABC TV yesterday afternoon that he did not expect 2093 to be retained as the target date in the new Closing the Gap agreement, following further discussions today. He also said his goal was to have the new agreement signed before the Northern Territory election on 22 August.

Rather than setting targets of “parity”, Australia should be aiming instead to defund prisons and police and change the way we address crime, according to Robyn Oxley, a Tharawal woman who has family connections to Yorta Yorta, and an activist and a lecturer at Western Sydney University in Criminology.

She writes in the article below:

We need to see immediate change in the way Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people are policed. We must raise the age of criminality to 14 years of age. We must stop the over-surveillance of our youth.

We must look at what is imprisoning our people. If it is homelessness, provide adequate, quick housing. If it is employment, provide job training and opportunities for employment – before people are released from prison. If it is a breach of parole that can be easily fixed with a public transport card, provide it.”


Robyn Oxley writes:

We cannot waste another generation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people dying in custody.

Why is it OK to fail two, three or four generations of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people with the latest update on setting targets on Close The Gap and obtaining parity on the incarceration rates of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people?

We do not have 73 years to waste on closing this particular gap. The Government must not impose this target on incarceration rates for Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people.

We have only seen increases within the Aboriginal prison population across the country. According to the latest data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people make up 28 percent of the total prison population. In 2016, the ABS estimated the Australian percentage of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people was 3.3 percent.

According to an article from The Conversation in 2018, “the rate of Indigenous incarceration has increased by 45% since 2008”. This is not parity with the growth of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander total population.

The concern should be focusing on the criminal justice system and changing the way Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people are policed. Systemic racism plays a large part in the overrepresentation of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people, which must be addressed if we are ever going to see a drop in the incarceration rates.

The Australian criminal justice system needs major institutional reform and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities must take back the control from the Government, and make decisions that affect their communities and people. We must see a shift to ensure that self-determination is centred for Aboriginal communities.

The latest update on Closing The Gap targets are not strong enough for the community. Despite Ken Wyatt, the Minister for Indigenous Australians, stating on ABC TV’s afternoon briefing with Patricia Karvelas that he does not “want to be dead and buried in the ground and this still be a target” shows there is still time to change the draft CTG plan.

We have seen failed target after failed target, year after year and the whole campaign is starting to get tiresome. There must be a whole system turn over, which employs self-determination to address the increasing numbers of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people entering and re-entering the prison system.

In the three weeks leading up to the announcement of the new targets, we were told that there would be more ambitious ways to address incarceration. If the target is to have parity in 2093, then this is not in my lifetime.

I personally am glad that this will not be the case. For me, to have parity, feels like having Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people in prison should be as normal and within a ‘healthy’ range as having parity in the workplace. Ensuring parity in prisons is not a measure I want to see in my lifetime.

Defunding the police, through the Black Lives Matter movement was seen as radical idea, until we start to look at other areas that have been defunded, such as education, health and services to the community.

We must defund prisons and change the way we, as a country, as a society and as people address crime. It speaks volumes when a society values the prison system and believes this is the answer to the problem of crime.

It is clear from the increased incarceration of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people that we are operating under a flawed system. The same system that failed David Dungay, Tanya Day, Mr Ward, TJ Hickey, Wayne Fella Morrison, Veronica Marie Nelson Walker, Joyce Clarke and many of the 430 plus people, that have died in custody.

If we wait another few generations, it will be too late for many more Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people and there will be many more victims from deaths in custody.

We must be examining police brutality and the powers that police hold. Police are barely held accountable when there is a death in their presence; this also extends to other people who are employed through the criminal justice system.

Craig Longman has expressed concerns over the accountability of police regarding Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander deaths in custody and raised some important limitations. The police, in fact undertake the investigation of a death in custody and there seems to be uncertainty or fear around reporting.

Given that there have only been two cases, from 1980 to 2020, where police were held accountable for an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander death in custody, seems to be reason enough for not reporting against police.

In 1991, the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was not conducted in vain. There are 339 recommendations that must be implemented if we are to see any real changes and improve the lives of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. These recommendations are still applicable some 29 years after the report with the recommendations were released.

The mistrust in the system should be indication enough that it is broken and cannot be fixed with a 73-year approach. We simply do not have the time to spare, nor the time, nor the lives to waste, to address overrepresentation.

It is time to call for a change. The change must be a community-by-community approach. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are not a monoculture. Each Nation has different needs, different levels of access to services (depending on where there country is), different cultural practices, and different cultural protocols.

We must ensure that the communities are empowered to make the decisions that affect their lives. If we continue the blanket ruling, there will only ever be increases within the incarceration rates of Aboriginal people.

A realistic timeframe would be tomorrow. We need to see immediate change in the way Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people are policed. We must raise the age of criminality to 14 years of age. We must stop the over-surveillance of our youth.

We must look at what is imprisoning our people. If it is homelessness, provide adequate, quick housing. If it is employment, provide job training and opportunities for employment – before people are released from prison. If it is a breach of parole that can be easily fixed with a public transport card, provide it.

Too many Aboriginal lives have been lost to the system. A system that continues to privatise prions and think this is the way to solve crime, lack any accountability regarding the amount of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people dying in custody and simply places business above the lives of people who are under the scrutiny of the criminal (in)justice system.

Robyn Oxley is a Tharawal woman and has family connections to Yorta Yorta. Robyn is an activist and a lecturer at Western Sydney University in Criminology. Her field is in the space of the criminal justice system and Aboriginal rights to self-determination. Her work is primarily focused on human right, social justice and improving the outcomes of Aboriginal people in relation to the criminal justice system.

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Closing the Credibility Gap 2013
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Racism and children/youth health symposium 2014
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Population Health Congress 2015
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