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New ways needed to arrest indigenous imprisonment rates

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Gittins: injustices faced by Aboriginal Australians

Criminologist Dr Don Weatherburn offers six reasons why we should still care for the plight of Aboriginals.

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You don't need me to tell you that in a country such as America, with all its history of racial conflict, the rate of imprisonment for African-Americans is far higher than the rate for whites. Twelve times higher, in fact. But you may need me to tell you we make the Yanks look good. Our rate of indigenous imprisonment is 18 times that for the rest of us.

Aborigines make up 2.5 per cent of the Australian adult population, but account for 26 per cent of all adult Australian prisoners.

<i>Illustration: Kerrie Leishman</i>

Illustration: Kerrie Leishman

If you want me to give you some economic reasons we should care about this, it's not hard. On average it costs $275 a day to keep an adult in jail. So it's costing taxpayers about $800 million a year just to keep that many Aborigines in prison. And this takes no account of the cost of juvenile detention centres, police costs in responding to offending, the cost of investigating and prosecuting suspected offenders and the health costs in responding to and treating victims.

Obviously, for every Aborigine who was in a job and paying tax rather than in jail and costing money, there'd be a double benefit to taxpayers, as well as a gain to the economy. But the far more important reason for caring about the high rate of indigenous imprisonment is moral. As the criminologist Don Weatherburn argues in his new book Arresting Incarceration, the consequences of European settlement have been truly calamitous for Aboriginal Australians.

''The harm might not have always been deliberate and it may not have been inflicted by anyone alive today, but it is no less real for that,'' Weatherburn says. ''An apology for past wrongs would be meaningless without a determined attempt to remedy the damage done.''

The trouble is, particularly in the case of Aboriginal imprisonment, we've been making such an attempt, but getting nowhere. If not before, the problem was brought to our attention by the 1991 findings of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

The commission found that Aborigines were no more likely to die in jail than other prisoners. The reason so many died was that they constituted such a high proportion of the prison population.

The Keating government accepted all but one of the commission's recommendations and allocated the present-day equivalent of almost $700 million to put them into effect. State and territory governments committed themselves to a comprehensive reform program.

But get this: rather than declining since then, the rate of Aboriginal imprisonment has got worse.

''It is hard to imagine a more spectacular policy failure,'' Weatherburn says.

It would be easy to blame the problem on racism in the justice system but, though there may be some truth in this, it's not the real reason. Similarly, Weatherburn argues it's not good enough to blame it on ''indigenous disadvantage''.

If that were the case, virtually all Aborigines would be actively involved in crime and they aren't. Most are never arrested or imprisoned.

The plain fact is that more Aborigines are in jail because more Aborigines commit crimes, particularly violent crimes.

In NSW, for example, the indigenous rate of arrest for assault is 12 times higher than the non-indigenous rate. The rate of indigenous arrest for break and enter is 17 times higher. Measures taken after the royal commission failed to reduce crime because they assumed this would be achieved if indigenous Australians were ''empowered''. Much of the money and effort was devoted to legal aid and land acquisition.

Weatherburn argues that if you want to understand indigenous offending, you need to look at the factors likely to get anyone involved in crime, regardless of race.

''The four most important of these are poor parenting (particularly child neglect and abuse), poor school performance, unemployment and substance abuse,'' he says. ''Indigenous Australians experience far higher rates of drug and alcohol abuse, child neglect and abuse, poor school performance and unemployment than their non-indigenous counterparts.''

The first and most important thing we need to do, he says, is reduce the level of Aboriginal drug and alcohol abuse. This is key, not just because drug and alcohol abuse have direct effects on violence and crime, but also because they have such a corrosive effect on the quality of parenting children receive which greatly increases the children's risk of involvement in crime.

Weatherburn's second priority is putting more resources into improving indigenous education and training. As the mining boom in the Pilbara has shown, it's much easier to find jobs for Aborigines when they have the degree of education and skill employers are looking for.

His third priority is investing in better offender rehabilitation programs. Efforts to divert serious and repeat offenders from prison have been a dismal failure. But small changes in the rate of indigenous return to jail have the potential to produce large and rapid effects on the rate of Aboriginal imprisonment.

Much existing spending on Aboriginal affairs is ineffective. Were it not for Tony Abbott's special affinity with Aborigines in the Top End, we could expect the coming federal budget to really put the knife through it.

But this would save money without reducing the problem.

It will be a great day when the advocates of smaller government abandon the false economy of not wasting money on the routine, rigorous and independent evaluation of the effectiveness of government spending programs. Then we might make some progress.

Ross Gittins is the economics editor.


  • My sentiments precisely. Well put Ross.

    Date and time
    March 26, 2014, 6:36AM
    • Don't do the crime, if you can't do the time.

      Where's my car?
      Date and time
      March 26, 2014, 7:20AM
      • I fail to see how people dont understand this logic. Its always someone elses fault...
        The law does not look at the influence of alcohol and drugs as mitigation when sentencing, and so it shouldnt.

        Date and time
        March 26, 2014, 1:56PM
    • Thanks, Ross. I normally enjoy reading your articles but I have a few issues with this one.
      It is obvious that if the political parties wanted to do something positive for our Indigenous people, it would have been done a long time ago. That it remains one of the most corrosive problems in our society speaks volumes.
      Second, I feel you are over-selling Abbott's link to the 'Top End' re: ''Were it not for Tony Abbott's special affinity with Aborigines in the Top End, we could expect the coming federal budget to really put the knife through it.'' The man promised to spend the first week as PM in the Top End - it is yet to happen.

      Date and time
      March 26, 2014, 7:31AM
      • Dare I say it? Yes I will. Integration is the answer.

        Date and time
        March 26, 2014, 7:56AM
        • Just to clarify, you mean integration of Europeans with Aboriginals, right? Because the British are the ones who invaded their home and destroyed their culture? The culture that is intrinsically linked to their identity?

          Date and time
          March 26, 2014, 1:53PM
      • This is starting to look like an problem without a solution.
        Aborigines are not sent to jail for being Aborigines but for
        committing crimes, often violent crimes almost always with
        other Aborigines as victims typically family members.
        We all know the root cause is poverty, unemployment
        alcohol and the destruction of their culture. What no one
        has been able to come up with is a solution and it's not
        for want of trying.

        Date and time
        March 26, 2014, 8:06AM
        • Ross,
          Nice article actually one of your best. I can't agree with you more the problem Indigenous australians are having with law and order. The saddest thing is when comparing it to africian amercians the indigenous australians are even a smaller minority, which makes the problem that much more.
          At the end of the day if these kids want a chance they have to go to school and they need role model parents maybe our high profile indigenous athletes can do more cathy freeman, adam goodes, Nova Perris, greg Inglis. etc..
          Kids who are in abusive homes need to be taken out, just like a white kid is or an asian kid etc. We know that money does nothing like Abstudy (which it was formally called when i was at school). The problem is everyone knows what needs to be done, but how do we do it???

          Date and time
          March 26, 2014, 8:40AM
          • Dear Mr Gittins.

            The Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody found that Aborigines of the same age cohort were MORE likely to die outside of prison than inside. There is a bit of "playing with numbers" as well, isn't there; plus the usual implication that African-Americans and Australian Aborigines are incarcerated as a result of "racism".

            At least you do acknowledge that Aborigines in the corrections systems are there BECAUSE they committed very nasty and violent crimes - but you forget to mention that, in nearly all cases, their victims were also Aborigines and very often their immediate relatives, partners and children.

            The need for effective education and training of Aboriginal youth was first recognised more than a century ago - hence the hostel and apprenticeship system that operated between about 1900 and 1960. Charles Perkins and the boys he schooled with in Adelaide showed just what could be done - but the "do-gooders" shut that system down as it removed the best and brightest from their "culture" and the great opportunity Perkins et al enjoyed morphed into being stolen. Perkins became a skilled tradesman, the first Aboriginal to complete a University degree, a professional footballer (turning down contracts with Everton and Manchester United to Captain Sydney Olympic) and an SES Officer with the APS. Had he not gone to Adelaide he'd have probably been an unknown Todd River drunk.

            It's the very "culture" the lefties are so desperate to preserve that generates today's Aboriginal disadvantage - as the "Little Children are Sacred" report demonstrated. Respecting the "culture" has condemned a whole generation to lousy educational outcomes, welfare dependence, chronic generational unemployment, rampant substance abuse, vicious domestic violence, child abuse, and the utter hopelessness reflected in the incarceration rates. No-one wants another "stolen generation" so no-one does anything.

            Jack Richards
            Snowy Mountains
            Date and time
            March 26, 2014, 8:43AM
            • [and apprenticeship system that operated between about 1900 and 1960]

              [It's the very "culture" the lefties are so desperate to preserve that generates today's Aboriginal disadvantage]

              I can't agree more to both these points.

              They need to be apprenticeships programs to formalise and measure the success or otherwise of such a program, and apprentices can start young - getting them away from uncontrolled alcohol use of their teen cohorts. The cost would not be high in relative terms to other employment programs.

              About the culture, well that is a difficult one, but just as a refugee from a backward country has to adapt to the modern low cultural emphasis western world or have a hard, troublesome life, so to do all groups that are disadvantaged. Lefties cannot put the culture before the needs of the people, so business/employment programs are 80% wasted money where they aim to keep the people in remote locations (the non-wasted areas are really just tourism and art which have quite limited scope for employment).

              I'd give them a cash cow. Legalise dope and give them the sole right to sell it for 10 years, enforcing as part of the deal a high percentage of profit investment in normal income generating businesses and including educational improvement requirements for employees.

              Occupy Cronyist Giovernments
              Date and time
              March 26, 2014, 1:45PM

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