Podcast: Indigenous Incarceration Inquiry – Meet the Commissioner



Sabina Wynn (SW): Hello I’m Sabina Wynn, Executive Director of the Australian Law Reform Commission. I’m here with Commissioner Matthew Myers who’s leading the current Inquiry in the Incarceration Rates of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Peoples. So Matt, welcome to the ALRC. I wondered if you could give us a little bit of your background, perhaps where you’re from and how you originally got into the law.

Commissioner Matthew Myers (MM): OK, I guess how did I originally get into the law? That’s an interesting question. Back in the late ‘80s my father and mother use to do some work with an Aboriginal pastor in Redfern—around a men’s shower and breakfast centre out of Elizabeth Street—called Bill Bird. During that time I would sometimes go with my dad down to Redfern and I remember going to a meeting in Eveleigh Street, which was what people use to refer to as ‘The Block’. It was a time where there was, what you could only really describe as over-policing of that area, and I remember walking down Eveleigh Street and seeing a police car pull up and there were some residents of Eveleigh Street really just standing in the street having a chat, minding their own business. The police car pulled up and wound its window down and started to ask some questions or give the residents a bit of a hard time and things started to get a little bit ugly. I was watching what was going on, not directly involved in it, and I saw a lady walk up. She spoke to the police and was completely respectful of them, but spoke to them and I guess you might say diffused the situation. Things could have gone badly but didn’t, and I didn’t really understand particularly what had gone on but had a chat to some of the people and it turned out that that person was a lawyer and I saw that as an enormously powerful thing, somebody coming in and intervening and fixing a situation that could have gone badly but didn’t. And the police moved on and the residents went about their business. At that stage I thought— that’s a really a powerful thing, that’s something I’d like to aspire to. I wasn’t so lucky to get the marks that I needed to get in law the first time and ended up going back and re-sitting the HSC and getting the marks then to get into law, so I’m a big believer in second chances.

SW: So then, after law school what area did you practice in?

MM: I ended up going into practice in a small law firm in a place called Terrigal which is on the central coast. And I was working there, and I’d worked there a little bit during my later part of university, and they offered me a full time job. And I remember doing bits and pieces, just seeing people, doing wills, doing odds and sods and one of the partners there did family law and he must have had a bad day in court because he came into me and said ‘I’ve had enough! I’m not going to do family law any more, you’re the family lawyer, you’re getting all the files’. Then his secretary came and dumped about 30 files on my desk and that was my baptism into family law.

SW: You’ve come to the ALRC from the Federal Circuit Court?

MM: I have. So I sit as a Judge of the Federal Circuit Court up in Newcastle and sit in a jurisdiction really just doing family law.

SW: The ALRC’s inquiry is about incarceration of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander people.  You’ve been starting to talk to people, consult with members of community, the legal profession, the police—what are some of the things that you’re hearing that is contributing to the high rates of incarceration?

MM: It’s interesting, I think we are seeing common problems occurring commonly and I should be clear, this Incarceration Inquiry is not about excusing crime or being soft on crime. What it is trying to do is work out what is actually going on. For instance, we’re hearing from some of the people we’re having consultation with, you’re getting young kids or young adults in a set of circumstances, they’ve never been in problems with the police or the law before but for whatever reason it is they’re not in a position to be able to get a driver’s licence. And we had a consultation up in the country and some people said to us, ‘look they need to drive, they’re going to drive anyway, but there’s real barriers to getting those driver’s licences’, so for the first time we’re getting young adults who have never had a problem with the law before finding themselves breaching the law, getting themselves into trouble, and once they do then it’s a slippery slide, and then finding themselves incarcerated.

SW: Some people would be aware that there’s been a lot of work in the past about this sort of issue, we’ve had Royal Commissions, we’ve had other reports and reviews, there’s a lot of people who feel they’ve come up with a lot of the answers to this issue, what do you think the ALRC can add?

MM: The first thing is, we’re not starting at square one, what we’re doing is drawing upon all that work, looking at all those reports, inquiries, looking at Royal Commissions, trying to take out of that things that are relevant, I guess, to law reform. It’s a law reform commission, what can we do to try and change or reverse this trend by providing some real tangible, concrete recommendations around those things? It’s not about being soft on crime, it’s not about excusing criminal behaviour, it’s looking at how can we prevent criminal behaviour and prevent incarceration rates rising, how can we look at the system that we’ve got and provide some answers. Maybe if we did this differently we’d get a better result. Much like that example back in Redfern, there was a communication problem going on. Once it was resolved it then led to a situation where everybody was happy. So trying to work out what can we do around law reform, look at the laws, look at what we might do better. We’re very good in this society with telling people their rights, we’re not very good about telling people about their obligations, and we are probably even worse at helping people fulfil those obligations. We are going to be looking at what can we do around that sort of space.

SW: In terms of that, I suppose there are a lot of people doing good things but because we’re such a large country it’s hard to keep a track of everything.

MM: Well that’s right. Even at this early stage we’re seeing really good programs where we are changing people’s behaviour. All those programs are designed to reduce criminality, change people’s behaviours so that they don’t find themselves in jail, but you are right they’re often small programs in sometimes particular towns or particular states and because this country is so vast other people don’t know about it. So what we are hoping to do is thread together or tie together all the good work that’s been done, work out what’s not working, work out what is working and if we see a program that’s reducing crime rates which then leads to a reduction in incarceration, how can we take that program and adapt that, maybe, to a different state or across the board throughout the country, so we might see that as an answer. We are really looking at individualised programs and looking at the possibility of their adaption to the wider community.

SW: The ALRC will be putting out a Discussion Paper in the middle of the year and at that time calling for submissions. You‘re with the ALRC until the end of the inquiry in December.

MM: I am, so I’ll be here for the whole of the inquiry. We will be running consultations right throughout the year, so we are going to be meeting with people right throughout the year. That will be a really good point of the inquiry in the middle of the year— at about June where we’re going to provide a Discussion Paper— where we’re going to be saying, look here’s some of the things that we know about, here’s more questions, here’s a range of different things that we are finding out, let us hear what you might say about that. So go to the community and say to the community, the broad community, so police, people in education, people in the community, people working with prisoners in prisons, everybody, land councils, everybody, the whole community, what do you think about what’s going on? What do you thing about these questions? Do you want to provide even a written submission to us on it, so that we can actually find out what everyone’s views are? After we’ve spent the first part of the inquiry articulating or working out what are the real issues, what’s underlying this rate of over-incarceration?  Why are these laws disproportionately affecting Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander people? Why are we seeing these high rates of incarceration?

SW: OK, good luck.

MM: Thank you, no doubt we’ll have further chats again.

SW: Absolutely, thanks Matt.