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As Closing the Gap targets are 'refreshed' peak bodies and organisations are calling for a commitment reducing imprisonment rates of Indigenous people, with a focus on addressing mental health and disability.
Keira Jenkins

10 Jun 2020 - 5:52 PM  UPDATED 10 Jun 2020 - 5:52 PM

After meeting with governments on the Closing the Gap 'refresh' NACCHO CEO and Coalition of Peaks co-chair Pat Turner said she wants to hold states, territories and the Commonwealth to account on the targets they agree to meet.

All the social and economic issues that contribute to the gap in life expectancy must be addressed, she said.

"The key target of Closing the Gap is to ensure that our life expectancy rates are the same, at least, with other Australians," she said.

"We cannot continue to have the 10, 12 year gaps between mainstream Australian populations and our First Nations populations dying much younger.

"But if you want to achieve parity or improve on that for our people, which is what we want to achieve as the key objective in closing the gap then you have to address all of the other social and economic issues that are left wanting.

"By that, you need to have safe, healthy housing, you have to address environmental health, you have to have extensive, comprehensive primary healthcare available, to every Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person who wants to access that, preferably through our community controlled health services.

"You have to have a strong, Aboriginal legal service sector to influence policy and to make sure that the advocacy and the legal representation of our people is accorded every time someone is in contact with the criminal justice system at whatever level.

"You have to have our voices heard in combating family violence in this country. Not only heard, but our organisations have to be resourced to address it from the community level up.

"You have to address all of the elements of closing the gap in order to achieve the parity on life expectancy, and those targets will be included but targets alone will only allow us to monitor the level of commitment and the level of work that governments are doing to ensure that they reach the targets that they themselves have really set and have to be committed to meeting."

But Ms Turner said the work doesn't stop at setting the targets, and she and the Coalition of Peaks will continue to push governments to meet and exceed these targets.

"We will be monitoring and holding governments accountable for the next 10 years on the progress against that and we will continue to push increasing the levels of ambition on every target."

'No services'

The Australian newspaper reported that the federal government would commit to reducing incarceration rates for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Gayaa Dhuwi (Proud Spirit) Australia - a mental health and suicide prevention leadership body welcomed this. 

Gayaa Dhuwi patron Tom Calma said to close the imprisonment gap, addressing mental health needs to be a focus.

"Over a decade ago, as Social Justice Commissioner, I called for the development of Closing the Gap targets to reduce our incarceration rates, and for a justice reinvestment approach to doing so," he said.

"I repeat these calls today. [Gayaa Dhuwi] stands ready to lead and partner with stakeholders and Australian governments to develop a comprehensive mental health based strategic response to help close the imprisonment rate gap."

Change the Record co-chair Cheryl Axelby said governments also need to commit to investing in drug and alcohol facilities and mental health facilities.

"What state and territory governments also need to do is invest in the facilities, whether it's drug, alcohol facilities because we don't have enough of them in our communities and that's right across the board," she said.

"Same for our mob who have mental health issues, they're all ending up in the prison system because there are not services out there that are meeting their needs or there's not a government investment in growing those services.

"If you send people to prison - this is my experience after 35 years of working in the justice system - they're not actually addressing the issues, they're questioning people about why you offend but not actually putting investment into the cause of those factors about why about why people are offending and looking at rehabilitation in particular, and strengthening people coming out of the justice system.

"To me that's what we should be doing as a society, not traumatising people in that system, treating them like animals and then expecting them to come out into society to be well-adjusted human beings and a lot of damage is actually done within those institutions." 

'Disability Criminalised'

First Peoples Disability Network CEO Damian Griffis agreed, saying the mental health sector needs to be better resourced in Australia.

"The mental health sector is a poorly resourced sector across all Australia and it's particularly acute across regional and remote Australia," he said.

"So we talk about things like you kind of need to have your psychotic episode on the fourth Thursday of the fourth month when the mental health team is in town, otherwise you can forget about it.

"You won't get any meaningful support, in fact you'll be criminalised and put in a paddywagon and end up in prison.

"That's a very common experience."

But Mr Griffis said it's not just mental health that needs to be addressed - he also wants to see a commitment to resourcing the disability sector.

"We need greater investment in Aboriginal owned and operated responses, and not just in the mental health space," he said.

"They need more resourcing to do the critical work that they do, and we need that in the disability sector too.

"It's not just about mental health or psychosocial disability, it's also about supporting our community that have cognitive disability.

"There are very high rates of Aboriginal people that have cognitive impairments or what's sometimes referred to as intellectual disability in Australian prisons."

In fact, Mr Griffis said 42.8 per cent of Indigenous deaths in custody had a mental health issue or a cognitive impairment.

"We would be pretty certain that figure may even be a conservative one because it's often common that Aboriginal people with disability in prison don't necessarily have a diagnosis and certainly, when they're in prison, they often lack support around their disability," he said.

Ms Axelby also welcomed a push in the Western Australian Parliament to repeal laws on jailing people for unpaid fines.

The laws disproportionately affect Indigenous women and the process of reforming the law was sparked by the death of Ms Dhu.

"I think it's a long time coming, especially since the death of Ms Dhu in particular," she said.

"The government had made that commitment, as I understand, way back then. It's great to see that they're finally addressing that issue."

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