Criminal justice targets for ‘Closing the Gap’

Question 10–1           Should the Commonwealth Government develop justice targets as part of the review of the Closing the Gap policy? If so, what should these targets encompass?

10.37  In 2005, Tom Calma AO, the then Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, called the Australian Government to commit to achieving equality for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the areas of health and life expectancy within 25 years.[32] This led to the National Indigenous Health Equality Campaign in 2006 and to the adoption of the Close the Gap Campaign that demanded state, territory and federal governments commit to closing the health and life expectancy gap between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and other Australians within a generation. On 20 December 2007, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) agreed to be accountable for reaching this goal within 10 years. This strategy has become known as ‘Closing the Gap’.[33] It set six targets that are reported on annually by the incumbent government.

10.38  In the Social Justice Report 2009, it was argued that the expansion of the Closing the Gap targets to include a criminal justice target would address the disproportionate representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as both victims of crime and in the prison system itself:

Although it is a serious omission that no formal targets were set at that point to close the gap in imprisonment rates, the emphasis on health, education and employment all speak to a vision of strong Indigenous communities. The problem is, however, that you will not be able to meet these targets if you continue to have such a high proportion of the Indigenous population caught up in the criminal justice system because imprisonment compounds individual and community disadvantage. Over time we would hope that the Closing the Gap targets will lead to an improvement in life chances and therefore a reduction in imprisonment but this could take a generation at the very least. For this reason, specific justice targets are needed now.[34]

10.39  In the Social Justice and Native Title Report 2014, support for justice targets that would address this over-representation was reiterated:

Targets encourage policy makers to focus on outputs and outcomes, rather than just inputs. It is not enough for governments to continue to report on what they do and spend, especially if that appears to be making little positive difference. Targets move us towards accountability and ensure that tax payers’ money is being spent in a results-focused way.[35]

10.40  The Social Justice Commissioner argued that targets have made the gap between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians and non-Indigenous Australians ‘visible’ and that this is ‘exactly what needs to happen on the issue of over-representation with the criminal justice system as victims and offenders’.[36]

10.41  Despite bi-partisan support for the development and inclusion of criminal justice targets as part of Closing the Gap, no justice targets have been included to date. The 2016 Senate Finance and Public Administration References Committee report discussed the call for criminal justice targets to be added to COAG Closing the Gap targets and many submitters to that Inquiry supported the development of justice targets.[37] For example, the National Association of Community Legal Centres argued that justice targets are a vital tool in supporting justice reinvestment strategies and provide a way to measure the impact and effectiveness of government strategies.[38]

10.42  Others questioned whether adding more targets to the Closing the Gap targets might both water down these original targets and distract from the work already being done in the other areas. The Australian Government has also argued that, as most of the levers to reduce incarceration are held at the state and territory level, it may not make sense to have a target for the Commonwealth.[39]

10.43  The 2017 report, Overrepresented and Overlooked: the Crisis of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women’s Growing Over-imprisonment, supported the development of criminal justice targets, calling on COAG to develop a fully resourced national plan of action or partnership agreement directed towards addressing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander over-imprisonment and violence rates. A second recommendation in the report advocated for the development of national justice targets in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peak organisations, to:

  • close the gap in the rates of imprisonment between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and non-Indigenous people by 2040
  • cut disproportionate rates of violence against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to at least close the gap by 2040, with priority strategies for women and children.[40]

10.44  The Closing the Gap targets are currently under review. The conclusion of the National Indigenous Law and Justice Framework 2009–2015 has meant that there is limited continuing national leadership on issues related to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander incarceration. Whether or not there should be justice targets included in any new policy initiative remains a question that the ALRC is seeking guidance on.