Posted on May 19, 2024

Aboriginal People Make Up Record 31% of Adult Prison Population in NSW

Lorena Allam, The Guardian, May 14, 2024

The number of Aboriginal adults and young people in New South Wales prisons is the highest on record, new figures released on Tuesday show.

In March, the number of Aboriginal adults in prison was “at a record high”, the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (Bocsar) said. Aboriginal adults make up 31% of the prison population.

“To put that in perspective, in NSW, 3.2% of adults are Aboriginal and one in 29 Aboriginal men in NSW are currently incarcerated,” the Bocsar executive director, Jackie Fitzgerald, said.

“Concerningly, NSW is no longer on track to meet its Close the Gap target to reduce the rate of Aboriginal adults in prison.”

The NSW target was to reduce the rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults held in custody by at least 15% by 2031.

Of the 12,456 adults in prison in March, 3,841 were Indigenous. But the increase isn’t isolated to adults, Fitzgerald said.

Two-thirds (66.4%) of the youth detention population is now made up of Aboriginal young people, which is also a new record in NSW.

The overwhelming majority of Aboriginal young people in detention are on remand (78.4%), primarily for break and enter (29.3%) and car theft (22.4%).

“This is a crisis we should all be furious about,” said Nadine Miles, the principal legal officer of the Aboriginal Legal Service (NSW/ACT).

“The mass incarceration of Aboriginal people in NSW is the direct result of government policies which have been developed without community input and which give the green light to continued discrimination against Aboriginal people in the legal system.”

The NSW premier, Chris Minns, said the statistics represented a “major issue” confronting the state.

“We want to work with Capo [the NSW Coalition of Aboriginal Peak Organisations] and other peak Indigenous organisations to reduce the rate of incarceration,” Minns said.

“That means reducing the incidence of crime in our community.”

Asked if the state’s proposed knife-wanding laws would increase the number of Aboriginal people in custody, he said it was “difficult to say” but he hoped it would lead to a cultural change.

“In a kind of ironic way … I hope that the incidence of detection of knives in the community actually drops as a result of the legislation passing because there’s a cultural change,” he said.

But Miles said the NSW government was reaching for “tough on crime” measures that won’t work.

“This includes the extraordinary new wanding laws which have done nothing to reduce violent crime in other places they’ve been tried. Just weeks ago, despite the record-high number of Aboriginal children in custody, the government chose to pass dangerous bail laws that are the harshest in the country. The premier himself admitted that the laws will imprison more Aboriginal children, so we can expect to see this shameful record climb even higher,” she said.

With regards to tougher bail laws relating to so-called “posting and boasting” of youth crime on social media, Minns said while “not ideal”, he considered a longer stint in the youth justice system was preferable to catastrophic car crashes.

“I believed it was important to make the change because I was concerned that we would face a situation quite quickly where a young person would wrap a car around a tree and kill themselves or a family member,” he said.

“That’s far worse than, as bad as it is, being introduced to the juvenile justice system.”

A spokesperson for the attorney general, Michael Daley, said it was clear that “more needs to be done”.

“We are investing to reduce offending and reoffending, including through Justice Reinvestment initiatives to address causes of crime and by expanding the youth Koori court.”

But the spokesperson said new legislation addressing domestic violence, knife crime and youth crime was necessary to “ensure our laws in NSW are able to protect all members of our community, including women and children”.

The NSW Council for Civil Liberties said the new knife and bail proposals were “weak”.

“These laws are a sign of a weak premier, beholden to rightwing shock jocks, who continues to make policy on the run whilst misleading the community by telling them that he can eliminate violent crime by the introduction of these laws. That is simply, untrue,” the council’s president, Lydia Shelly, said.

“The premier has allowed NSW to be transformed into a state where the police will have the extraordinary power to search members of the public without a reason and prison populations will continue to balloon with further presumptions against bail introduced.”

Bocsar found that the record numbers of all adults on remand in NSW is largely due to a rise in recorded incidents and legal actions for domestic violence, sexual assault and intimidation and stalking offences.

“Domestic violence and remand are both of significant current concern,” Fitzgerald said.

In March 2024, there were more than 3,000 adults in custody for domestic violence offences in NSW, more than at any previous time. More than half were on remand, Fitzgerald said.