Indigenous imprisonment rates catastrophic, says Law Council

The rising indigenous imprisonment rates have come under scrutiny by the Law Council of Australia, calling on governments to take a closer look.

The Law Council of Australia has called on governments to take a close look at the overrepresentation of indigenous Australians in prisons this National Reconciliation Week.

In the last 15 years, indigenous imprisonment has increased by more than 57 per cent while the rate of non-indigenous imprisonment has remained fairly steady, according to the Law Council of Australia. 

With much of the problem stemming from repeat offenders, Duncan McConnel, president of the Law Council, is urging governments to gain a greater understanding of the traditional legal system, in order to better understand the barriers to rehabilitation.

“It’s not just a problem of people coming into the criminal justice system, its them going to prison and then when they come out of prison, ending up back there,” he said.   “We’ve got to look at things like parole laws and what sort of support services can be put in place for people when they are on parole so that they don’t commit, often minor offences, but are enough to get them put back into prison.”

While the reasons behind the rise are not completely understood, McConnel said that the increases are likely due to rises in policy rather than an increase in crime.

“Violent crime is not going up, but the penalties that are being applied for violent crime, just as one example, are going up,” he said.  “So when governments bring in mandatory sentence policies or policies that result in longer terms of imprisonment as a minimum or for more offences to require a minimum term of imprisonment, they seem to be the main drivers of increases in numbers of indigenous prisoners.”

Meaningful constitutional recognition he said, may help to address the disengagement felt by members of disadvantaged communities. 

“If you are starting out from communities with dysfunction that have been brought about by a long history of marginalisation, you end up with families that are living below the poverty line or in circumstances where there are greater levels of dysfunction,” said McConnel.  “Engagement and evolvement in the welfare system, which in turn creates a greater likelihood of becoming involved in the criminal justice system, leads to high number in this particular demographic of our community being represented in the criminal justice system.”

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