Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott said that higher Indigenous incarceration rates were a result of higher rates of offending, such as domestic violence, in Indigenous communities.
Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott has been slammed for saying Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people don’t face discrimination in the criminal justice system.
On Sunday, Mr Abbott told the Sun Herald newspaper there was no evidence of judicial discrimination.
“Obviously the Indigenous incarceration rate is much higher than the general incarceration rate,” he said.
“That shouldn’t be so unless there’s evidence that courts are more likely to imprison Indigenous offenders than non-Indigenous offenders, and there is none,” he added.
Labor's spokesperson for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney, told SBS News Mr Abbott’s comments lacked understanding.
“Dismissive comments such as this are not helpful and demonstrate a complete lack of understanding and detachment from the realities of over-representation of Indigenous Australians in our justice system,” she said.
Professor of law at the University of Technology Sydney, Thalia Anthony, who has studied the criminal justice system's response to Indigenous Australians, said the comments weren’t backed up by the evidence.
“What we know from research is that effectively at each stage of the criminal justice system, where there are alternatives to divert Aboriginal people, those alternatives are used less for Aboriginal people then they are for non-Aboriginal people,” she told SBS News.
“Whether that is through arrest, whether that is through denial of bail or sentencing that contributes to a pathway of imprisonment and so his comments are really ideologically driven, but they are also not reflected in the research that shows over-incarceration due to systemic racism,” she added.
While Indigenous people account for almost three per cent of Australia's population, they make up nearly 30 per cent of prisoners in Australia, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
There are about 12,900 Indigenous people in prison with 4.7 per cent of all Indigenous males in prison, compared to just 0.3 per cent of all non-Indigenous men, the ABS figures show.
Mr Abbott’s comments come amid ongoing protests around Australia highlighting the issues of deaths in custody and the over-incarceration of Indigenous Australians.
Earlier this month, Mr Abbott was made a companion to the Order of Australia for his “service to Indigenous Australians” among other things.
Mr Abbott also told the Sun Herald newspaper that the higher Indigenous incarceration rate reflected a higher Indigenous offending rate.
"It is absolutely tragic. But we know that when it comes to domestic violence and a lot else, this is much worse in Indigenous communities than most parts of the country."
Professor Anthony said that at all stages of the criminal justice system discrimination existed and that it started in youth detention, where non-Indigenous children were far more likely to receive non-custodial sentences or warnings.
“Tony Abbott has not considered this multiplicity of ways the criminal justice system over incarcerates Aboriginal people irrespective of their criminal histories, simply because they are Aboriginal people,” she said.