Angus Holland, Canberra Times, November 20, 2015
Opposition leader Bill Shorten this week promised to do something about the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous incarceration rates should he win government.
“The reimprisonment rate for Aboriginal young people is higher than the school retention rate,” he said in a speech to the Melbourne University Law School on November 18. “The numbers are heartbreaking – and getting worse.”
These two charts, compiled from the latest figures from the Bureau of Statistics, starkly show how rapidly the problem has escalated in recent years.
This first chart shows how the total number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in prison has nearly tripled since 2000:
This next chart shows the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in prison compared to the population at large:
- In the Northern Territory, 85 per cent of the prison population is of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent.
- Nationwide, 28 per cent of prisoners are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, while they make up only 2 per cent of the Australian population.
- The imprisonment rate of Aboriginal women has increased 74 per cent since 2000.
A recent controversial report by a Deakin University criminal law professor concluded Aboriginal people were twice as likely to be jailed when convicted of crimes than non-Aboriginal criminals, after studying 482,000 sentences.
Mirko Bagaric wrote: “On average Indigenous offenders receive a slightly shorter prison term than the rest of the community for most offence types.
“But this ostensible softer treatment is far outweighed by the fact that when sentenced, Indigenous offenders are about twice as likely to receive a term of imprisonment than non-Indigenous offenders for the same crime.
“Hence we have a situation where Indigenous offenders are grossly over-represented in jails.”
Mandatory sentencing laws for young offenders have also been a focus of attention.
Michael Bochenek, senior counsel for children’s rights at Human Rights Watch, has argued: “The impact of these practices falls disproportionately on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, who are substantially over-represented in the juvenile justice system throughout the country.”
So what is the government doing about it? The Age‘s Michael Gordon writes that “the Coalition government has so far resisted calls from Islander and Torres Strait Islander leaders for justice targets, with Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion saying thy would send the ‘wrong signal’ that somehow indigenous offenders were different from others.”