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Introducing the JustJustice book – a sneak preview of the major themes and calls to action

As part of the countdown to the launch of the #JustJustice book on Sunday, writer Karen Wyld introduces some of the key themes that have emerged from more than 90 articles published as part of the crowdfunded project.

Karen Wyld writes:

The #JustJustice book provides a significant intervention into public and policy debate about the over-incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

By privileging the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from across the country, and taking a strengths-based, solutions-focused approach, the book reveals the depth of knowledge, social and cultural capital, and leadership among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

The stories and voices in the #JustJustice book demand a strong response, and that must include action from governments, policymakers and service providers, including those working in the health sector.

This book also demands a response from all Australians, that we individually and collectively acknowledge the true history of the colonisation of this country, in order to enable healing and justice.

As the stories show, one of the longstanding strategies of colonisation has been to criminalise, institutionalise and incarcerate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people; we must acknowledge this history in order to stop repeating it.

This book also demands a response from the mainstream media, to move beyond colonial constructions and representations that problematise and pathologise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Enact your watchdog roles; hold governments to account; and maintain a strong spotlight on not only the problems caused by “tough on crime” rhetoric and “law and order” policies, but also on the solutions to over-incarceration.

As the stories in the #JustJustice book show over and over again, communities have the solutions. The media must help governments to do a better job of listening and responding appropriately.

The #JustJustice series, published by Croakey between April 2015 and November 2016, highlights the complex correlations between the criminal justice system and the health and well-being of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Within the book are stories of people’s lives and aspirations, and their ongoing efforts to achieve fairer treatment within the justice sector for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The book provides an honest account of the over-incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and the complex circumstances that might lead people to being brought before the criminal justice system.

Drawing on personal stories, the generational effects of crime and incarceration become painfully obvious. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander contributors have generously shared their stories, in the hope that real change can occur for their families and communities.

These stories are balanced with evidenced-based accounts of the impact of the justice system on the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, families and communities.

The #JustJustice book also exposes the unacceptably high number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with health conditions, such as foetal alcohol spectrum disorder and hearing loss, who have become trapped in a cycle of incarceration, often for minor offences.

More than anything, this book brings together community members, professionals, policy makers, and health practitioners to share their expertise.

Collectively, they present politicians, policy makers, health and justice sectors, and the wider community with road-maps to move forward.

The #JustJustice campaign kicked off on 9 April 2015 with a call for action from Mick Gooda, who at that time was Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner. He stated that:

Tackling the over-incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples will require leadership and action at multiple levels.

The evidence from around the world tells us that putting people in jail for minor crimes does not create safer communities. But it does create a cycle of incarceration that is tearing apart families and communities.

I am supporting the #JustJustice campaign because we need to encourage a public debate that is focused on ensuring effective, evidence-based solutions to over-incarceration.”

During the 2015 – 2106 #JustJustice campaign, research evidencing over-incarceration and inequitable treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people was reinforced by a number of incidents that gained widespread public attention [that are covered in more depth in the book].

In chapter one, Cultural solutions, the positive influences of culture, family and community are highlighted. Leadership and the role of Elders and mentors to help young people to avoid destructive cycles, are shown as vital elements.

People on the ground collectively call on government and policy makers to see first-hand the successful initiatives that communities have developed to address complex health and social issues.

Clinton Walker, a Ngarluma and Yindjibarndi man from the Pilbara region in Western Australia, states:

We are the people that know our own problems and we’re the only ones who can solve them. If you give us the means to do it, it will happen.”

Stories from the heart is the theme of chapter two. People shared personal stories of family violence, recollections of friends who have been trapped in cycles of crime, and the impact of incarceration on communities. They’ve also provided solutions to reducing both crime rates and incarceration, such as through investing in community initiatives and social infrastructure.

Michaela Crowe, an Yinggarda woman from Carnarvon in Western Australia, states:

What the young people around here need are more activities and programs to keep them out of trouble.

They need to be put in touch with culture, not drugs and alcohol.”

Chapter three, Landmarks in advocacy, explores the benefits of using evidence-based advocacy to generate stronger accountability and drive change.

The Blueprint For Change, released in November 2015, provided a twelve principle plan to close the gap within imprisonment rates and to cut disproportionate rates of violence experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people; particularly women and children. This leading document was developed by Change the Record, a coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations, as well as allies within the human rights and legal sectors.

An Amnesty International review of the implementation of Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody states:

In 1992, Federal and State Governments agreed to report annually on their progress in implementing the recommendations of the Royal Commission. Not only have governments generally failed to provide these annual reports, they have also failed to implement most of the recommendations.”

Indigenous leadership is the focus of chapter four. Throughout Australia, there are many people speaking up, mentoring young people, and actively contributing to change. Strong leadership does exist but they require more support and accountability from funding bodies, policy makers and non-indigenous organisations

Richard Weston, CEO of the Healing Foundation, states:

The progress we have made can be the springboard for us to address current challenges and tackle unfinished business. This is not just a job for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families and communities alone.

It needs the engagement of all Australians. We have the opportunity to collectively address the truth of Australia’s history and the impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.”

Cultural solutions, respect, collaboration and setting achievable justice targets are key themes in chapter five, Community-driven innovation – Justice reinvestment.

Cheryl Axelby, CEO of the Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement, South Australia, states:

Justice Reinvestment is a not a short-term, one size fits all, top-down approach. Communities chosen for Justice Reinvestment must be supported to play a central role in the design, implementation and monitoring of local Justice Reinvestment plans.”

Health and wellbeing takes centre place in chapter six, Focus on disabilities. Failure to provide appropriate healthcare during incarceration is not only a human rights issue but can lead to lessened success rates of rehabilitation.

Overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people within court systems and prison is concerning enough, but more so for people with hearing loss, cognitive impairments, foetal alcohol spectrum disorder and other disabilities.

Scott Avery, Policy and Research Director at the First Peoples Disability Network, states:

If one in five people with disability are diverted from detention and into a supported disability program, then the overall Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prison population could be reduced by 10 per cent.”

Chapter seven, titled Trauma-informed solutions, highlights the impact of family violence and intergenerational trauma, as well as trauma associated with dealing with justice systems.

Dr Anna Olsen, Visiting Fellow at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health (NCEPH) at the Australian National University, and Dr Ray Lovett, Research Fellow at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies and at the NCEPH, state:

The criminal justice system is not necessarily considered the most appropriate means for dealing with family violence. Indigenous experiences of family violence and the justice system suggest that people are interested in programs that focus on preventing the transfer of violence, not just prosecuting or punishing people for being violent.”

In chapter eight, Caring for youth, there are strong calls for action to prevent more young people presenting before the criminal justice system.

Darren Parker, Ngunawal man and a PhD Candidate at the Melbourne Law School, states:

It is abhorrent that there are approximately 450 Indigenous children in detention across Australia every night. Even more abhorrent is that we do very little to combat this when indeed we could. Be outraged at that!”

Young people are again a key focus in chapter nine, Health leadership, as are community-controlled approaches, evidence-based practices and government accountability. And there is a strong call for culturally safe approaches, taking in to account intersectionality.

Dameyon Bonson, founder of Black Rainbow Living Well, states:

When it comes to Indigenous LGBTQI people, very little is known about our interactions with policing and justice systems. We know even less about how policing and justice systems are responding to our particular needs.”

Chapter ten, Addressing racism, shines a light on themes that need to be discussed openly and honestly: institutional racism, power and privilege, human rights abuses, historical contributors to current inequities, and concerns over discriminatory practices in policing and law.

Eddie Cubillo, Executive Officer of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service, states:

There won’t be a single bullet that cures all areas of disadvantage faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, but real constitutional reform would have important symbolic significance to ensure that our foundational document removes the racist elements that still pervade our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their communities.”

Chapter eleven sees a continuation of these themes, through the shocking human rights abuses that were exposed at Don Dale juvenile detention centre in Northern Territory. Graphic images of young detainees being treated roughly at the hands of staff caught the public’s attention. The government response was to call for a Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory.

Liana Buchanan, Victoria’s Principal Commissioner for Children and Young People, and Andrew Jackomos, Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People, state:

We need to continue to express our disgust when we learn of abuse against children and young people and to speak up for those who do not have a voice.

We also need to remember that a purely punitive, tough-on-crime response to youth offending can lead to unacceptable and shocking mistreatment of children, as well as being ineffective in making our community safer.”

Whilst incidents at Don Dale gained broad public attention and a swift response from government, there were countless equally disturbing incidents during 2015 and 2016 that did not.

With only a small number of recommendations from the 1987-1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody having been actioned, it is easy to feel despondent.

The #JustJustice book encourages readers to acknowledge those feelings of being overwhelmed, but is also a call to not give up. It asks everyone, from politicians and policy makers to people working within health, social services and justice sectors, and the broader community, to listen.

Listen deeply to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, families and community-controlled organisations.

Hear the truth mirrored within the evidence-based research and the personal stories.

Develop a deeper understanding of the complex drivers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ over-representation in the criminal justice system.

And respond to the call for collaborative, culturally safe, strength-based approaches for #JustJustice.

Karen Wyld is a freelance writer and consultant based in South Australia, with a background in Aboriginal health, research, community development and health workforce training (You can support her writing here).

• On Twitter, follow @1KarenWyld.


Crowdfunding thanks

You can read more than 90 #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.

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