Only a royal commission will sort out prison crisis

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Indigenous leader JULIE TONGS writes that we have to face the awful truth, the worst-performing government in Australia, when it comes to locking up Aboriginal peoples, is the ACT government. And enough is enough. 

FOR years, I have been advocating loudly and regularly about the disgraceful over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in prison or otherwise involved with the ACT criminal justice system.

Julie Tongs.

As painful as it is to have to face the awful truth, the worst-performing government in Australia, when it comes to locking up Aboriginal peoples, is the ACT government.

The latest data on indigenous incarceration in the ACT reflects the depth of the crisis, in fact an ever worsening and festering crisis, in the nature and extent of the over-representation of Aboriginal peoples in the justice system. 

It was because of this that in July I wrote, in despair, to the then Attorney-General, Gordon Ramsay, and the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, Rachel Stephen-Smith.

In my letter I said, among other things: “As you would be aware the ACT has the highest rate of increase in the incarceration of Aboriginal men and women in Australia and the highest rate of indigenous incarceration in Australia.

“In fact, in the last eight years there has been a 279 per cent increase in Aboriginal incarceration and the Minister for Corrections has advised that 90 per cent of Aboriginal detainees in the AMC have a prior conviction.

“It is clear that the policies and procedures purportedly in place in the ACT to address the disproportionate level of contact of Aboriginal peoples with the different arms of the justice system, whether it be the police, courts, prison, throughcare, community corrections or parole are quite simply failing to address the disproportionate levels of Indigenous incarceration.”

I concluded my letter by asking the ACT government to “initiate a detailed, comprehensive and independent inquiry into the effectiveness of all arms of the justice system in their contact with and response to members of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community”.

To their credit, the now Attorney-General, Shane Rattenbury, and the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, Ms Rachel Stephen-Smith, in company with the Minister for Corrections, Mick Gentleman and Minister for Justice Health, Emma Davidson, convened, on March 24, a roundtable meeting involving a wide range of representatives of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community.

The meeting was to discuss, among other things, the desired form of a commitment which the ACT government had given in response to my letter to “a holistic review of the overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the justice system, led by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community”.

The ministers went on to reiterate the government’s commitment to ensuring that the Aboriginal community would lead the work and further advised that: “We are seeking your expertise and guidance on how the government can facilitate the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community to lead a comprehensive review of these issues.”

At the roundtable I insisted that we had reached crisis point and that a piecemeal approach was not feasible, would not be effective and that only a Royal Commission-style inquiry would suffice.

The roundtable ultimately resolved that I should convene a follow up meeting with a view, as requested by Ministers Rattenbury, Stephen-Smith, Gentleman and Davidson to formalising the Aboriginal community’s preferred option for identifying and addressing the multiple issues impacting on the over-representation of Aboriginal peoples in the ACT with the justice system.

I convened such a meeting on April 15 attended by 16 senior Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community leaders. It was addressed by Senator Pat Dodson and Prof Larissa Behrendt, who then also engaged in the ensuing discussion.

The meeting debated the issues before agreeing, unanimously, to the following resolution:

“That the government be advised that it is the view of the Aboriginal community of the ACT that the most effective and best prospect for identifying and responding to the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the ACT, in touch with the justice system or incarcerated, is by means of a formal Commission of Inquiry in accordance with the Royal Commission Act 1991.” The resolution was referred to ministers for endorsement in late April.

It was also decided at the meeting that draft terms of reference for the inquiry be developed, in consultation with and under the guidance of legal advisers Ken Cush and Associates. 

The draft terms of reference, which will focus on the multiple factors that lead to Aboriginal people coming into contact with the justice system and those which contribute to the Australia high recidivism rate of Aboriginal peoples in the ACT, are well advanced and once cleared by senior community leaders will be referred to the government.

I am accordingly looking forward to the government’s early endorsement, consistent with its many undertakings to support the community’s preferred model of inquiry, of a Royal Commission into the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the ACT justice system and imprisonment in the AMC.

Julie Tongs is the CEO of Winnunga Nimmityjah Aboriginal Health and Community Services. 

 

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