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Amnesty supports Indigenous-led community solutions

Children play a vital role in any community. Under the Convention on Rights of the Child, all children have the right to “develop their personalities, abilities and talents to the fullest potential, to grow up in an environment of happiness, love and understanding”. However, many Indigenous children do not have full opportunities to fulfill this right.
Shane Phillips, Tribal Warrior CEO, at the Redfern launch of Community is Everything. Photo: Lyn Turnbull

Shane Phillips, Tribal Warrior CEO, at the Redfern launch of Community is Everything. Photo: Lyn Turnbull

Indigenous young people are more likely to be incarcerated today than at any time since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1991.

While Indigenous youth make up only 5 per cent of the youth population of Australia, they make up 50 per cent of the juvenile prison population.

These children are 26 times more likely to be detained than non-Indigenous children nationally, and 18 times more likely here in NSW. Indigenous incarceration rates are drastically higher than their non-Indigenous counterparts in every state.

The Northern Territory was recently revealed to contain the largest number of people in detention per capita, following only China and the US. In 2013, 86 per cent of inmates were of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent. One in five inmates were under the age of 25.

Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show ten years after release, four in five previously imprisoned Indigenous youths had returned to jail.

Amnesty International’s latest campaign, Community is Everything, aims to reduce the incarceration rate by 25 per cent over the next five years, by pressuring federal and state governments to divert funds that would be spent on incarceration into giving better support to Indigenous-led community solutions and complying with their international legal obligations.

These solutions come under the umbrella of “justice reinvestment”, which was recommended by the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in 2010.

Mick Gooda, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, describes justice reinvestment as a “criminal justice approach that diverts a portion of the money for imprisonment to local communities where there is a high concentration of offenders.

“The money that would have been spent on imprisonment is reinvested into services that address the underlying causes of crime in these communities.”

The cost of detaining a young person for of a year is estimated to be around $440,000. Amnesty International Secretary General Salil Shetty said this money could put an Indigenous young person through an entire undergraduate medical degree at a prestigious university.

At the launch of the Amnesty report A Brighter Tomorrow, which focuses on Indigenous youth justice issues, Mr Salil explained that under a justice reinvestment system, existing funding would be redirected to community-led prevention programs, negating the need for additional funds.

“It’s not about spending more money,” he said. “It’s about pulling that spending out of the bottomless pit of the criminal justice system and redirecting it into early intervention and prevention programs that work for all. It’s a win-win for all Australians.”

Bourke, a town in regional NSW, has already taken steps to implement a justice reinvestment system led by the Bourke Aboriginal Community Working Party (BACWP).

From March 2014, the BACWP has worked to establish a watertight social and economic case for justice reinvestment to be implemented in the community. In 2016, the Bourke community, Just Reinvest NSW and their supporters will take their case to the NSW government for response and action.

The plan involves identifying savings under the existing arrangement and from there, outlining where re-investment could improve justice system outcomes for young people. At the same time, the program will work with local police to tackle some issues that are identified to contribute to young peoples’ involvement with the justice system.

This includes establishing a driver’s licence program, a program to support people not to breach bail conditions, and a warrant clinic to assist young people who have committed less serious offences to stay out of remand.

In Redfern, the community has rallied behind young men who have been in frequent contact with the police, working as a community to provide ways of rehabilitation in line with their cultural beliefs.

Mr Gooda reported community leaders taking young men on a five-day intensive bush camp with indigenous mentors. At the conclusion of the camp, there was a ceremony welcoming the young men back to community.

“Instead of being made invisible, they were embraced,” Mr Gooda said.

The Tribal Warrior Mentoring Program is aimed at decreasing recidivism rates among young people in the community. By creating a supportive family environment, promoting commitment to the program, discipline through physical training, and giving kids the opportunity to go on excursions to places of cultural significance with their mentors, where they learn the history of certain sites and their heritage, the program was able to report a decrease of crime in the area by 70 per cent.

The idea behind justice reinvestment and the Brighter Tomorrow report is that justice should not be removed or viewed separately to other social factors. For this reason, in order to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous life outcomes, we need to adopt justice targets and implement justice reinvestment.

There is no magic trick that will reverse the shocking rates of Indigenous youth incarceration in Australia, but with support from the public, and the participation of Indigenous communities in the push for justice reinvestment, we have an opportunity to begin that change for our young people.

Mr Shetty drew parallels in his delivery of the Amnesty report between the stolen generation and the generation who are increasingly spending time behind bars, away from their communities and away from their childhoods.

“Australia has a long and tragic history of removing Indigenous children from their families and communities,” he said.

“We will see another generation lost to failed government policies, unless Australia shows the vision to support and fund Indigenous people to be the architects of the solution.”

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