Law Council urges criminal law reforms to facilitate fair enforcement for indigenous community

“The use of force on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples will not be tolerated in Australia,” says Law Council President Pauline Wright

Law Council urges criminal law reforms to facilitate fair enforcement for indigenous community

The Law Council of Australia has called for the implementation of recommended reforms in criminal laws to facilitate fair enforcement for the indigenous community.

The council pointed to a 2014 incident that occurred at Darwin’s Don Dale youth detention centre, where tear gas was deployed against four teenagers who were detained at the centre at the time. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the NT Supreme Court dismissed the former detainees’ claim on the use of tear gas, although damages were awarded for battery. Moreover, the NT Court of Appeal had rejected an appeal.

On 3 June, the High Court reversed the courts’ rulings, reaching a unanimous decision that unleashing tear gas on the teenagers was not lawful under the Youth Justice Act (NT).

The council called for governments to consider raising the age of criminal responsibility, noting that indigenous youth between the ages of 10 and 17 are 22 times more likely to be placed in detention than non-indigenous youth.

“The Law Council also asks federal, state and territory governments whether it is right and appropriate in 2020 to incarcerate 10 year-olds,” President Pauline Wright said in a statement.

In addition, she said that the High Court’s ruling “lends support to the recommendation of the 2017 Royal Commission into the Northern Territory’s youth justice system, that tear gas should be prohibited in juvenile detention centres.” 

“There is a national tragedy on our own doorstep which cannot be ignored. The High Court’s decision…is a timely reminder that the use of force on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples will not be tolerated in Australia,” Wright said.

According to a December 2019 report by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples comprise 29% of the country’s total adult prisoners and 58% of juvenile detainees; however, this group makes up only about 3% of the nation’s total population.

“This makes them one of the most incarcerated populations in the world,” Wright said. “Australia is still waiting for a comprehensive response by federal, state and territory governments, to the Australian Law Reform Commission’s (ALRC) seminal Pathways to Justice report into the incarceration rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, more than two years after its publication.”

The ALRC has made suggestions to reform the country’s criminal laws in the areas of bail, parole and mandatory sentencing. The commission also recommended a review of police procedures and practices “so that the law is enforced fairly, equally and without discrimination,” Wright said.

The council is encouraging government bodies to work together in implementing these recommendations.

“The Law Council believes that a ‘justice reinvestment’ approach, and the redirection of funds currently spent on incarceration, instead targeting community support and prevention, the provision of diversion and rehabilitation programs, is urgently needed to reduce the disproportionate number of  Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the justice system,” Wright said.

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