Sabina Wynn (SW): Welcome to this podcast about the ALRC Report about the incarceration rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. I’m Sabina Wynn, the Executive Director of the ALRC, and I’m here with the Commissioner-in-Charge of the Inquiry, Judge Matthew Myers.
Commissioner Matthew Myers (MM): Sabina, thank you for having me. If I can firstly start by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we are meeting holding this podcast, the Gadigal People of the Eora Nation, and pay my respects to their Elders, past and present, and any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people listening to this podcast.
SW: So let’s talk about the context of the Report. There have been so many previous inquiries and reports into this matter. Why did we need this Inquiry?
MM: Look, you’re right. There have been a lot of previous inquiries. If we go back 26 years ago we’ve got the findings of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in Custody. And what we’ve seen since that time is a doubling in the rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people now held in prisons. We’ve seen a variety of things change. We’re now seeing for the first time that the biggest growth of people held in prisons are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women – that’s something that wasn’t occurring 26 years ago.
SW: The Report makes 35 recommendations that go to laws and legal frameworks, and I’m just wondering if you could speak a little bit about which of those recommendations will make the most impact in terms of lowering the incarceration rate?
MM: Sabina, if we look at the way in which people are offending, what the Report finds is that nearly half of all those Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people sitting in prison, are sitting in prison for low-level offending, sitting in their for repeat offending, where they’re churning through the system, coming in and out, in and out, for things like fine default, drivers licence problems, and a range of other things where they’re receiving sentences of two years or less. What our recommendations go towards are providing things like programs that address the problems these people are encountering, so that they don’t reoffend again, they’re not committing crimes in the community, and going back into prison.
SW: So what would be an example of a recommendation we’ve made that would address this low-level offending of people who are just going to prison for short-term sentences?
MM: If you look at recommendations around community-based sentences, where people who are offending and convicted get sentenced to go and do something in the community. If we take the driver licence example, be sentenced to get your driver licence. If you’ve got drug and alcohol issues, be sentenced to go and deal with those. In effect what we’re seeing is some of those community based sentences available across cities and big regional areas, but we’re not seeing those sentences available remotely. So the effect is magistrates or judges having to sentence people to prison because they haven’t got those alternative sentences available. So we’re making some recommendations that they be available so that people on short sentences can address their offending behaviour, so they don’t go to jail and just sit there. They actually do something about it so they don’t recommit crime.
SW: When we were travelling around the country consulting with stakeholders, many of whom were Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander individuals and organisations, we repeatedly heard that it was crucial for the success of any program delivered for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, to have a leadership of those people, for them to be culturally appropriate and trauma informed. And I know there’s a lot of discussion in the Report about this. Can you just explain what we’re actually talking about there?
MM: Sabina, what we’ve seen over a good number of years is money being spent on programs delivered to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that don’t work. Where somebody drives into town and says, we are here to provide to you this program, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people say, look – it’s not suitable for us. It’s not addressing the issues that we’ve got, and its not going to the crux of the problem. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people know well the problems that are facing their community. And what we have seen across the country are failures where they’re not consulted, where they’re not actually working on those issues themselves. But what we’ve also seen is the success of programs where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have leadership to address the problems in their community.
SW: You mentioned before the increasing rate of imprisonment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women. What are some of the recommendations that might go to addressing that issue?
MM: Sabina, what we’re seeing are things done for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women that don’t fit. We’ve seen programs delivered to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women that are really an adaptation of a program that is designed for male offenders that don’t translate very well or work. What we’re particularly seeing is a lot of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women come from backgrounds of extreme trauma, where they’ve been exposed to sexual abuse, family violence, a lot of them have post-traumatic stress disorder – things like that. So if you’re going to provide a program to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women to prevent them reoffending, you need to take a trauma informed approach. In circumstances where they’ve suffered a lot of trauma, in circumstances where they’ve got particular needs that won’t be met by simple providing a male adapted program to them. So we’re really talking about programs that specifically meet the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women delivered by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women themselves.
SW: So what are some of the other recommendations in the Report?
MM: We’re looking at things around Aboriginal Justice Agreements, where we get everyone involved in the criminal justice system to sit down together and work collectively for an outcome where they’re not just sitting in their sylos doing things remotely or in isolation, so we get better outcomes. We’re looking at police accountability. So – ways that police can better work with communities to do such things as reduce family violence, which reduced offending. Looking at courts, supporting courts that are delivering programs such as Murri Courts or Koori Courts, where we’ve seen things work, but aren’t being rolled out at the moment across the states or territories.
SW: It sounds like these recommendations could cost a lot of money.
MM: Sabina, I think we’ve got to look at the costs of incarceration. We’re talking about keeping someone in prison on average being about $300 a night. We know that collectively across the country we’re spending more than $3 billion a year keeping people locked up. What we’re seeing as well is that placing people in prison, where we don’t do anything to rehabilitate them does nothing more than presses the pause button on their offending behaviour. They go into prison, we take the pause button off, we let them out, and see them reoffend. It is a big cost to the community. But what I’m saying is there could be real savings made by doing something to prevent this reoffending behaviour taking place.
SW. We’ve now delivered the Report to the Attorney-General. Would you like just to explain what happens next.
MM: We’ve delivered the Report to the federal Attorney-General. But what you’ve got to remember is that a lot of the laws and legal frameworks that are driving some of this incarceration are state and territory based. So it will really be a matter for the state and territory governments to sit down together with the federal government to collectively work out what can we do to implement these recommendations and make some changes. But I guess, if I can say this before we finish. One of the leanings I made during the Inquiry was this. While the problems are complex and difficult, they’re not so big. In that the numbers of people locked up are not so great. We’re talking about, in Australia, a little bit more than 40,000 people locked up, of which about a little over 11,000 are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners. The numbers aren’t so great that we can’t do something about this and make a real change.