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Indigenous prisoner numbers up

Date

Christopher Knaus

The ACT recorded the country's largest spike in indigenous imprisonment rates of the past year, new statistics show.

But prison data, released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics yesterday, also shows the territory has maintained its record of the lowest imprisonment rate in Australia, despite a large jump in prisoners in the year to September 30.

New Corrections Minister Shane Rattenbury has expressed concern at the significant jump in the indigenous imprisonment rate, saying more needs to be done to understand the reasons.

The ACT recorded a 44 per cent increase in the imprisonment rate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the year ending September 30, a bigger jump than in any other state.

The increase is likely to have been influenced by the ACT's relatively smaller prison population, which jumped from 33 to 49 prisoners during the year, and by a blitz that worked through almost a fifth of backlogged criminal cases in the Supreme Court.

But, Mr Rattenbury warned, the jump should not be written off as a ''statistical blip''.

''With the numbers jumping so rapidly, it's an immediate issue that's right on the radar now, to understand what those figures mean and look at what we're going to do to address it,'' Mr Rattenbury said.

The parliamentary agreement between the Labor Party and the Greens has promised to invest $100,000 in Aboriginal legal support every year for four years.

Mr Rattenbury said $1.1 million in the last budget to strengthen rehabilitation services for offenders, designed to stop a return to crime, would also help lower the rates.

Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT chief legal officer John McKenzie said much more had to be done for the ACT's relatively small group of indigenous offenders to prevent recidivism.

''Because of the really low numbers we're talking about, why aren't we putting in a huge amount of resources into the months leading up to these people's release, and then the all-important six to nine months after their release?'' Mr McKenzie said.

''There's no secret as to who it is that we need to do something about, and it's hard to find any reason other than a lack of real political will, as to why it's not happening,'' he said.

The data shows the ACT continues to hold the lowest overall imprisonment rate in the country, at 95 adult prisoners per 100,000 people.

That is despite a 13 per cent increase in the number of prisoners per capita in the past year, the biggest proportional increase in the nation.

The average daily number of prisoners in the Alexander Maconochie Centre jumped from an average of 239 in the September quarter last year to 277 in September this year.

More than one third of prisoners held in the Alexander Maconochie Centre are still on remand, and the ACT has again recorded the largest proportion of unsentenced prisoners in the country.

That is something Mr Rattenbury describes as unacceptable.

He said the blitz in the ACT's court systems had helped to lower the number of those in remand languishing in ACT's jails.

''I think the blitz made an impact last year, and that was a positive development,'' Mr Rattenbury said.

''But we certainly can't rest on the laurels of that, there's a lot more work we need to do to get the ACT court system operating in a timely manner.''

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