• Greg Oliver, National Congress of Australia's First Peoples, has called on the Indigenous Affairs Minister to intervene. (Aboriginal Legal Service)Source: Aboriginal Legal Service
Let's focus on justice reinvestment targets over prison-performance targets to get Indigenous kids out of prison, says Aboriginal Legal Service CEO Gary Oliver.
Andrea Booth

4 Feb 2016 - 4:52 PM  UPDATED 5 Feb 2016 - 11:46 AM

Aboriginal Legal Services' Gary Oliver told NITV News that the NSW Correctional Service's intention to introduce prison performance targets "are a start" to combat high rates of imprisonment of Indigenous youths.

But NSW should introduce justice reinvestment targets if the state wants to end overrepresentation, he says.

"They're damning records that they're showing to us, and only giving us a bit of carrot cake."

The NSW government released a report in January showing prisoner populations increased by 9 per cent over the past 12 months.

Between 2013 and 2014, more than half (50.6 per cent) of young people in detention in NSW were of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent, reports Amnesty International.

Indigenous young people comprise 5 percent of the NSW population of youths.

In 2015, more than half (54 percent) of the young people in detention nationally were Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. In the same year, they were 26 times more likely to be behind bars than other young people, an increase from 2011.

The population of Indigenous youth in the country comprise 5 percent of the total youth population. 

"If the government is serious about reducing the numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids in prison, they need to introduce justice reinvestment measures," Mr Oliver says.

What is justice reinvestment?

Australia's Social Justice Commissoner Mick Gooda has been advocating a justice reinvestment model since 2010.

"Faced with increased imprisonment and recidivism rates amongst Indigenous youth, and escalating costs for new prisons and juvenile detention centres, now is the perfect time for governments to look for a better way," Mr Gooda said in a speech six weeks after taking office when NSW Indigenous young people still comprised half of the prison population.

"I am going to talk about justice reinvestment as a better way."

Justice reinvestment proposes that funds previously spent on imprisonment be redirected to services and activities that address the underlying causes of crime in communities with high numbers of offenders.

When NITV News asked NSW Corrections Minister David Elliott whether he would consider justice reinvestment targets given Mr Oliver's advice that prison performance ones were not enough, he responded:

"As part of a commitment to reduce adult re-offending by 5 percent by 2019, performance targets are being developed for all NSW prisons covering areas such as rehabilitation, safety and security, time spent out of cells and participation in programs."

NITV News is still seeking clarification from the minister on what these areas entail.

Mr Elliott says NSW Corrective Services "targets the overrepresentation of Aboriginal inmates in the criminal justice system" through programs such as the Balund-a residential diversionary program at Tabulum and the Gundi program at St Heliers Correctional Centre, which provides trade skills.

"Aboriginal inmates also participate in general programs aimed at addressing offending behaviour," he added. 

The NSW government is supporting the work of Just Reinvest NSW in its justice reinvestment trial in Bourke. The trial is in the data collection stage. Justice Reinvest NSW says the pilot intends to showcase to the government that justice reinvestment is an effective model to lower incarceration rates.

Tribal Warrior Mentoring: A potential justice reinvestment program?

The Tribal Warrior Mentoring Program in Redfern, an inner west neighbourhood of Sydney, was designed to keep Indigenous youth out of jail by directing their attention into meaningful and healthy activities.

The program began in 2009 in partnership with the Redfern Local Area Police Command's Clean Slate for Prejudice and since its initiation reports a 70 percent decrease in crime in the area.

Kids go out on excursions where they learn more about their culture, learn skills such as video production and take part in early morning training sessions at the National Centre for Indigenous Excellence.

"I think it's deadly. It's mad that all you young fellas get here training with us," Tribal Warrior CEO and program mentor Shane Phillips says in a video with participating kids.

"I love it because we're all together doing something positive to help our people and ourselves and our own families."

After training sessions, young people share breakfast together, which provides an opportunity for them to talk about any problems they may be experiencing so mentors can provide support.

The US experience of justice reinvestment

The justice reinvestment strategy has been successful in some parts of the US such as Connecticut.

Analysts were employed to look into criminal justice and social services data in Connecticut to find people returning to their neighbourhood from prison were returning to one with disproportionate amounts of welfare insurance. In response, the state deployed programs to address employment gaps.

As a consequence, the construction of a proposed $30-million prison in Connecticut was halted. About $13 million of this saving was invested into initiatives such as probation programs that supported former convicts' transition from prison to their homes and one hundred more probation officers.

Increase of people in remand in NSW correction facilities 

Aboriginal Legal Services' Gary Oliver says these sorts of community-focused programs would be especially relevant for the high rate of people in remand in NSW prisons.  

The NSW Correction Services’ remand population has increased by 17 per cent over the last year, a government report released in January revealed.

"We are way behind," he says.

"We could have people released within the community, not waiting in custody to be trialled."

He adds that the more people in remand, the greater the chance of deaths in custody.