Prime Minister Scott Morrison will today be questioned over his government’s ‘inaction’ on the ‘tragic’ over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in prison.
More than 30 leading Indigenous community organisations and academics are urging the government to respond to a six-month-old report which outlined 35 recommendations to address the disproportionate rate of Indigenous incarceration.
National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services co-chair Cheryl Axelby said national attention is critical.
"Everyone knows it is national shame, everyone knows its a national crisis, but what we need now is action, national action," she told NITV News.
"All Australians should be asking why are we still having horrific over-representation rates of our people in the justice system, and why are we having so many of our people die in custody."
In March, the Australian Law Reform Commission’s Pathways to Justice report was tabled in parliament. Since then, there has been no response from government.
The report calls specifically for the establishment of a national justice reinvestment body and supporting justice reinvestment trials around the country, and developing national criminal justice targets.
When the ALRC inquiry was announced by former attorney-general George Brandis in 2016, he described the Indigenous incarceration crisis as a ‘national tragedy’. He said the inquiry would a ‘critical step’ in breaking through the statistics.
Now, in an open-letter to the prime minister and Minister for Indigenous Affairs Nigel Scullion, signed by the Law Council of Australia, Amnesty International, National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services and others, the group calls for an urgent response.
“In the last six months since the report was tabled, more than 5,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men, women and children have been in prisons around the country,” the letter reads.
“We cannot let another generation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people lose their futures, their dignity, and, for some, their lives, because of inaction by Australian governments.”
It says the Australian Institute of Criminology ‘has since reported that the number of deaths of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in custody has increased to the highest it has been since 1979-80’.
According to the Guardian’s Deaths Inside investigation, more than 400 First Nations peoples have died in custody since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1991.
“Ever since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody over 25 years ago, we have seen numerous inquiries and reports that identify what government needs to do to address this national tragedy," said Just Reinvest NSW Champion Tom Calma.
"The federal government has the answers it needs. We are well overdue for action.”
Mr Calma said supporting evidence-based approaches like justice reinvestment are vital.
“We should be building communities, not prisons.”
A spokesperson for Mr Scullion said justice reinvestment is a matter ‘primarily’ for the states and territories.
“Justice reinvestment as a policy is primarily one for the states and territories that own, operate and control the justice system,” the spokesperson told NITV News.
The government said the issue of justice targets is being discussed as part of the Closing the Gap refresh and will provide a response shortly.
“We are waiting on more state and territory governments to respond to our offer to fund the establishment of a Custody Notification Service, a key recommendation of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and the ALRC report.”
But Cheryl Axelby says there is no reason why the Commonwealth should not take up justice targets.
"We've seen the commitment on other states and territories issues at COAG level," she said. "There are avenues for us to start taking the blinkers off and deal with an issue that is not politically viable for politicians."
The Federal Opposition called out the government's lack of response and said it will back national justice targets, if elected.
In a joint statement, Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus and Shadow Assistant Minister for Indigenous Affairs Pat Dodson said the government "cannot hide behind inquiry after inquiry – at the expense of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lives."
"It is time for honesty from this government on how they plan to address the incarceration crisis facing First Nations people."