• Youth justice supervision includes community-based supervision and detention. (Flickr)Source: Flickr
Peak bodies say the rate that young Indigenous people are coming into contact with the justice system is still too high, despite a new report indicating the rate has dropped over the past five years.
Keira Jenkins

18 May 2020 - 1:47 PM  UPDATED 18 May 2020 - 3:11 PM

The rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 10 to 17 in the youth justice system has dropped from 176 per 10,000 in 2014-15 to 172 per 10,000 in 2018-19.

The statistics were highlighted in a new report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) and have been welcomed by peak bodies, but with a reminder that there is plenty more work still to be done.

National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (NATSILS) co-chair Cheryl Axelby told NITV News the rates of our kids in the justice system is still much too high - and this decrease in numbers over the past five years is much too low.

"We're not really talking a significant drop in numbers," she said.

"What we do know from an Aboriginal Legal Services context and from the workloads that we carry is that we're not seeing a significant drop in legal representation of our mob, particularly our young fullas, in any shape or form."

In fact, Ms Axelby said at this rate of decrease, it would take centuries for Indigenous kids to no longer be overrepresented in youth justice statistics.

"At the rate that we're going - if we looked at this in the context of a projection say for the next 10, 20 years - we're not going to see an equal parity with non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in conjunction with our children in the justice system," she said.

"We're not going to see a very significant drop because when we're looking at some of the data and how we reach parity, we could be looking at hundreds of years before we reach that level of parity."

'National Shame'

Managing solicitor of NSW Aboriginal Legal Service's children's practice, Keisha Hopgood, agreed, saying despite the decrease, the rates of Indigenous children coming into contact with the justice system are still too high.

"It remains that the rate is still at a completely unacceptable level, at a level that is a national shame," she said.

"The disparity between Aboriginal kids being locked up or under supervision and non-Aboriginal kids is still at that same unacceptable level.

Ms Hopgood said while the report's finding that there has been a decrease in the rate of Indigenous young people in youth justice are welcome, the improved statistic only highlights part of the story.

"Although the number of young people in custody - Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal - might be declining, my understanding is that kids that have gone into short-term remand, that's kids that have gone into custody for less than 24 hours, short periods, where the police have bail refused them and the courts have granted them bail is rising," she said.

"That represents, yes the economic cost, but more significantly young people going into custody, being strip-searched, at the moment with COVID-19, going into quarantine, being taken away from their family, that's what that represents.

"We'd really like to see a focus on why there is such a difference between the rate that police are refusing young Aboriginal kids bail and the rates that the courts are.

"We looked at some of our own matters, just for a short period, we looked at a period of when the police have refused bail and when the courts gave bail and in just over 80 per cent of cases where police refused bail for a breach of bail the courts were giving bail.

"That's 80 per cent of those kids that you could say if police had made a different decision, wouldn't have spent that time in custody."

'Our people will fix this'

Shane Phillips, the CEO of Tribal Warrior, a community organisation based in Redfern, runs boxing programs for young people, in partnership with local police.

He said it is programs like his, based in communities and led by communities, that will work to change the overrepresentation of Indigenous young people in youth justice.

"The only way to change it is to have our mob empowered to change it and the young ones will see value in it and see their own worth," he said.

"I think one of the things we learnt here, is once we see the value in ourselves as people and our worth, we understood the big picture.

"We're genetically connected to thousands of years of strength and that helps people switch on. 

"We need to make sure that the empowerment and the real money and the opportunity to be able to help fix it happens in the community organisations.

"It's our people who will fix this."

Ms Axelby agreed, saying it is Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have the solutions.

"All of our mob, we live this experience and we are best placed in knowing what will assist in turning the many complex issues around but we simply need more investment by government with the current demand across all those service areas," she said.

"That to me is the number one, if they really want to make a change for us, if not then we'll continue challenging and calling out, just like our Elders have before us who developed all our deadly services.

"We're seeing the demand on a lot of our services and the lack of investment in community controlled organisations.

"I think that government need to have a look at that and get back to listening to us and working alongside us in partnership."

Fewer young Indigenous people are in detention but they still remain over-represented
The rate of young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australian detention, or under supervision in the community, has fallen slightly over the past five years, but they still remain massively over-represented in the justice system.