The Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) inquiry, led by federal court judge Matthew Myers, was commissioned by the Federal Government to investigate whether courts, police and prisons were contributing to the over-incarceration of First Nations people.
The answer was yes, the inquiry found, because the justice system was often entrenching inequalities by not providing enough sentencing options and diversion programs for Indigenous offenders.
- Inquiry recommends end to practice of jailing people for unpaid fines
- Courts should consider First Nations peoples’ systemic and background factors
- Governments should set criminal justice targets to reduce incarceration, violence
- Advocacy group says the inquiry provides a ‘once in a generations’ chance
There is no law and order solution to the high rates of Indigenous incarceration in Australia. The solution lies in an examination of our common humanity
The curtains closed bleakly on 2014. The rallying of the nation behind the Cairns community following the murder of eight children, and the #I’llRideWithYou Twitter campaign following the Sydney siege, showed once again that as a nation we are good at letting the overall goodness of our humanity prevail after a dramatic crisis.
I won’t diminish or undermine our sense of goodwill and humanity here, but I will challenge us to wonder about how much better we could be if we let the goodness of our humanity prevail in times when there is no dramatic crisis, but rather we are confronted by a toxic and enduring circumstance.
A case in point here is Aboriginal levels of incarceration. We represent only 2.4% of the Australian population yet account for more than 25% of the prison population, making us statistically among the most incarcerated peoples in the world. As a society, Australia does better at keeping a young Aboriginal person in prison than in school or university. The Aboriginal re-imprisonment rate is actually higher than the Aboriginal school retention rate from year 7 to year 12.
It is difficult to argue with Antony Loewenstein who says this is Australia’s greatest outrage, and a filthy stain on our projected global image as an egalitarian state with justice for all. Politicians in both Liberal and Labor parties wilfully ignore deeply measured recommendations to treat Aboriginal men and women as equals.
For those not directly affected by such devastating statistics it is difficult to imagine this as some kind of crisis, much less a dramatic crisis. Yet it does leave room to question the extent to which the goodness of our humanity prevails. Is this what we mean by being a tolerant society?
This toxic circumstance is made more tolerable if we cling to the negative stereotypes of Indigenous Australians as a form of “other”. There are mainstream Australians, and then there are the “other” Australians. Casting Indigenous Australians as a negative and despised form of “other” explains how we can tolerate or completely ignore such dreadful incarceration rates. Against this background it is very simple to make such pious and ill-considered statements as, “If they don’t want to go to jail, they shouldn’t break the law!”
deaths in custody protest
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‘We represent only 2.4% of the Australian population yet account for more than 25% of the prison population.’ Photograph: AAP
Against this background, it is very simple to impose policies for Indigenous Australians that do not signal any sense of belief in our humanity and own capacity to rise above the challenges we are confronted by. We are also mistaken if we assume that just because a particular policy approach is developed and driven by handpicked Aboriginal “leaders”, then it somehow signals a belief in the humanity of “other” Indigenous people. We’ve all seen the handsome rewards for those who sink the boot into their own people.
I have no problem with being “other” but I should get to decide, not you, about what type of “other” I am as an Aboriginal man. Like many Indigenous Australians, I refuse to be cast as a negative and stereotypical “other”, but rather as a strong, smart “other”. Notwithstanding, I have no problem with the sense of being the “same” as mainstream Australians. Ultimately this sameness is what connects us. This sameness is our humanity. Our cultural heritage is a layer upon this humanity.
And here lies the key!
If mainstream Australia can acknowledge and embrace the humanity of Indigenous Australians, and understand and appreciate that cultural layer, then we could no longer be silent about the dreadful statistics that are a stain on our society. It also offers a fundamental key to seriously addressing the challenges we face together.
If policies acknowledge and embrace our humanity and culture, then programs can be designed to do the same. If programs are designed in a way that acknowledge and embrace our humanity and culture, then the people involved in those programs necessarily must do the same. With this kind of policy, programs, people alignment, sustainable transformation can be achieved.
So what does this actually mean in a practical sense?
Dealing directly with the anti-social and delinquent behaviour of Indigenous children is complex, especially when crimes are perpetrated. Some years ago when I was the principal at Cherbourg State School in rural Queensland, I recall being furious when the school tuckshop had been broken into three times within four nights. At wits’ end, I met with the local magistrate and argued with considerable intensity that there had to be consequences.
“Chris, I can’t just throw these kids in jail for this,” she said.
Once I had put aside my hurt ego, and let go of my “There must be consequences!” mantra, I realised that of course she was right. It was probably true they were breaking in because they were starving. It is also possible they were breaking in because they were off their heads from sniffing petrol.
“So what would you do if it was your house they were breaking into?” I asked her.
We then got into a more purposeful conversation about the deeper complexities of the situation, understanding that yes, there must be consequences, but also understanding that a hardline and politically attractive response would be expensive, ineffective, and more likely turn potentially good kids into adult criminals.
For the young boys involved, intervention could either get them back on track to a good future, or fast track them down the punitive prison pipeline. In the end it got down to getting the balance right between humanity, justice and good sense. It would never be helpful to violate the humanity of the boys in question. As hurt or as angry as we were, it was worth remembering that if we undermined their humanity, we undermined our own.
I had a respectful and positive relationship with the mother of one of the boys. We agreed that a good consequence for him might be to own responsibility for his behaviour, front up to school assembly and apologise to the children for breaking into their tuckshop. Some people suggested this approach would cause great harm to the boy, but in reality he fronted up to school assembly and apologised. He never caused trouble at the school again. Incidentally, some 14 years later that same lad now works on the Sunshine Coast with young Aboriginal children, helping them to understand and embrace the importance of their cultural identity in order to be smart citizens in a modern world.
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‘As a society, Australia does better at keeping a young Aboriginal person in prison than in school or university.’ Photograph: AAP
This approach sounds easy enough and it was a strategy that cost nothing to execute. The truth is, however, we could never have executed this strategy without a strong and positive relationship in which we were connected by our humanity and our passion to have a school that built strong and smart children.
Building those relationships presents the toughest challenge for all of us because it means we have to confront our own long-held beliefs and prejudices about each other. For anyone, this is hard.
As taxpayers, it is worth questioning why governments think they can fix complex and wicked problems with simplistic “big stick”, hardline approaches. The zero tolerance approach might be politically rewarding to many politicians, but if we take the time to analyse this in an intelligent way, we realise that on most empirical measures it is proven to be expensive and ineffective. While some argue that zero tolerance is driven by high expectations, it is an approach that can never deliver the substance of a high expectations relationship – that is, a relationship in which we demonstrate the compassion to be fair, while also having the courage to be firm.
An overabundance of “compassion” on its own has not served us well as Aboriginal people and it often sees us rendered victims for whom people feel sorry. On the other hand, the compassionless “firm” or so-called “tough love” approach on its own clearly does not work either.
The central ingredient to a high expectations relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australia is one’s ability to acknowledge and embrace the humanity of others. It provides the fundamental basis upon which we are challenged at a policy level, at a programs level, and at a people level. Current policies on Indigenous affairs often do not acknowledge and honour the humanity of Aboriginal Australians. Basics cards and threats to sanction wages and welfare payments might spew the rhetoric of “empowerment”, but in reality they do not signal a belief in the humanity and capacity of Aboriginal people.
Substantial cuts to grassroots Indigenous programs also leave room to question the extent to which the humanity and capacity of Aboriginal people is acknowledged. There is room to question those people who will readily see tens of millions of dollars spent on punitive measures that entrench a sense of despair and stigmatise Aboriginal Australians, while at the same time erupting at the thought of tens of thousands being spent on programs that are designed to nurture honourable partnerships.
Punitive approaches to such problems are expensive and ineffective. Restorative justice programs are a proven method of addressing crime and anti-social behaviour in communities, which by design enable the humanity of both victims and perpetrators to be acknowledged. They may involve diverting offenders away from court, conferencing for both young and adult offenders, circle sentencing or victim–offender mediation programs.
To those raving to see us “get tough on crime”, and lacking ability to acknowledge the humanity of others, or comprehend the complexities at play here, let me urge you to calm down and analyse this through an economic lens.
In Australia it costs an average of around $120,000 to keep someone in prison for one year, and twice as much to keep a young person in juvenile detention. There are therefore huge economic benefits, as well as social benefits, in redirecting government spending away from prisons and towards community-based initiatives aimed at addressing the underlying causes of crime that are just a fraction of the cost of prisons.
Ultimately, prisons are ineffective, harmful and an extremely expensive way to combat crime. Research strongly indicates that early intervention programs targeting at-risk children, education attainment, providing stable housing and employment opportunities, and court sentencing programs that address the underlying causes of crime are the most effective – and economically efficient – ways to prevent crime and reduce re-offending.
The end of 2014 brought us many dramatic challenges, causing us to reflect more deeply on who we are as a nation, and the extent to which we are connected by our humanity. As we venture into 2015, let’s not wait for the next crisis to reflect on such things. Let’s let the goodness of our humanity manifest in a way that sees us more deeply connected day to day, and together committed to changing what needs to change, letting us be the nation we want to believe we are.