Govt adopts justice trial to reduce offending rate among Indigenous people
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Govt adopts justice trial to reduce offending rate among Indigenous people

Ten Aboriginal families in Canberra will be the focus of a trial the ACT government hopes will cut the number of Indigenous people in courts and jail.

The 12-month trial will let families join social workers to design plans addressing their health, housing, education and employment needs to reduce the territory's offending rates.

Winnunga Nimmityjah Aboriginal Health Service chief executive officer Julie Tongs believes a new approach is needed to reduce incarceration of Aboriginal people.

Winnunga Nimmityjah Aboriginal Health Service chief executive officer Julie Tongs believes a new approach is needed to reduce incarceration of Aboriginal people.Credit:Rohan Thomson

After a program to curb recidivism among former inmates was found failing to stop Indigenous men returning to Canberra's jail, the government hopes its trial will prevent offending, ensure stable accommodation, improve school learning, and identify employment opportunities.

Justice Minister Shane Rattenbury will announce the program with Winnunga Nimmityjah Aboriginal Health Service chief executive officer Julie Tongs on Wednesday.

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The trial, named Yarrabi Bamirr meaning "walk tall" in Ngunnawal, is the first in the ACT based on the idea of 'justice reinvestment' where resources are directed to reduce causes of crime, and was co-designed with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander service providers and community groups.

"Justice reinvestment is one of the ways we are striving to develop smarter, community and family-focused, inclusive and cost-effective outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities," Mr Rattenbury said.

"The evidence shows that where justice reinvestment measures are put in place, families and the wider community benefit."

Ms Tongs said after the failure of previous efforts to reduce incarceration of Aboriginal people, a new approach was needed.

"It's about giving people options and opportunities," she said.

ANU senior lecturer in criminology Jason Payne, part of the ACT's justice reinvestment steering committee, said the program avoided problems of other programs that weren't co-designed with Aboriginal communities.

The justice system traditionally focused on how to manage offenders rather than causes of crime, he said.

"We almost forget all the collective causes that have themselves the ability to be translated into crime or at least crime at some point.

"It's very different from the traditional justice reinvestment model that people often criticise as being a broad brush process of intervention."

The trial was instead targeted at families who could be impacted by the offending of family members.

Dr Payne said it would have to remain a whole-of-government initiative involving multiple agencies to be successful.

The government will measure the trial's results through changes in health, stable accommodation, improved school learning outcomes, and employment opportunities.

It will check its impact on people's contact with the justice system by measuring arrests and charges, referrals to diversion, access to legal advice, support when dealing with statutory agencies, and support while serving a sentence.

ACT Aboriginal community leader Ross Fowler in February described the over-representation of Indigenous people in Canberra's jail as "atrocious".

Young Indigenous people were vastly over-represented in the ACT's youth justice system, a Productivity Commission report on government services released in January showed.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were 19 times more likely to be locked up or subject to a supervision order in the ACT than non-Indigenous youths, at a rate of 294 per 100,000 people aged 10-17.

Doug Dingwall is a reporter for The Canberra Times covering the public service and politics.