Victoria's State Government must do better on Indigenous incarceration rates, writes Victorian Greens MP Dr Tim Read.
AS BLACK LIVES MATTER protests (BLM) swept the globe in recent weeks, some may have wondered why Victorians would need to take to the streets.
Victoria was the first state to enter treaty negotiations with its First Nations communities.
Doesn’t that mean it has a progressive government? One answer to this is kept out of sight, behind high walls.
Right now, one in ten inmates in Victoria’s prison system is Aboriginal.
Since Premier Daniel Andrews’ Government was elected in 2014, the number of First Nations prisoners has grown by 70%, compared to a 26% rise in overall prison numbers.
If these figures sound alarming, it’s because they are.
Recent protests and ongoing news coverage have exposed the over-representation of Aboriginal people in Victoria’s prisons, triggering a torrent of emails to my inbox from outraged constituents wanting action.
Many were supporting calls from the Aboriginal-led justice group Change the Record to change our State’s criminal law to reduce Aboriginal imprisonment and deaths in custody.
Across Australia, First Nations adults are currently jailed at a rate 13 times higher than non-Aboriginal people. And for children, the rate is 24 times higher.
In Western Australia, the tension between its criminal justice system and Aboriginal communities was widely publicised after the introduction of controversial “three strikes and you’re out” laws, which put many teenagers and minor offenders behind bars.
In fact, First Nations people are overrepresented in every state, particularly WA, where 39% of prisoners are Aboriginal. In the Northern Territory, the proportion is 84% and in Queensland, it’s 32%.
But racism isn’t new, so why is Victoria jailing more Aboriginal people now?
Much of the increase can be traced back to a statement by Premier Andrews, a few days after James Gargasoulas tragically drove his car into pedestrians on Bourke Street, killing six and injuring 27.
Gargasoulas had been on bail for assault charges, and in the ensuing shock and search for answers, Andrews declared Victoria’s bail law would be reviewed and needed “profound change for the future to keep Victoria safe".
After a hasty review, the bail law was tightened in 2017 and again in 2018, with bipartisan support.
Immediately, our prisons started to fill. The new law denied bail to many of those accused of offending while on bail, even for minor offences.
Someone on bail for possession of cannabis would go to prison for shoplifting or resisting arrest and wait weeks for their day in court.
The new bail law also means more prisoners have to convince a magistrate they deserve bail, a hard task for some. People born into disadvantage, taught to expect racism, sometimes with poor education and perhaps past trauma or mental illness, may decide it isn’t even worth trying.
And that is the case for many First Nations people. They are often refused bail and held in prison “on remand” for very minor offences.
When they get to court they are released, either because their offence did not justify any time in prison, or because they had already served enough time.
In response to our questions in Victorian Parliament, Victoria’s Minister for Corrections Ben Carroll stated that 46% of Aboriginal prisoners fell into this group in 2018-19, compared to 41% of prisoners overall. For Aboriginal women, it was a shocking 61%.
In effect, magistrates are finding that almost half of the Aboriginal people in prison on remand should not be there.
Observers of state politics around Australia will be familiar with the Liberal and Labor parties’ efforts to outdo one another to look “tough on crime”. The recent bail changes are just the latest bid in this long-running "law and order" auction.
Other changes by both Liberal and Labor governments over the past decade have forced judges to jail more offenders by introducing mandatory sentencing and removing options that avoided prison, such as suspended sentences.
But the bail law is the biggest culprit.
Pressure from Liberal MPs and the Murdoch press, in particular, has been a key driver of Labor’s policy.
Just before the 2018 State Election, the then-Liberal Opposition Leader Matthew Guy asked why a particular violent offender was given bail. Premier Andrews proudly responded that Victoria had “the toughest bail laws in our nation” and that “there [were] more people on remand today than … at any point in the State’s history”.
That so many First Nations people are brutalised by the prison system seems less important to our political leaders than their muscular response to crime.
The solution, legal experts believe, is to simplify the bail law so that only those endangering community safety are denied bail. Reforming the bail law – so that Aboriginal people and other disadvantaged groups are not unfairly imprisoned for minor offences – will also free up funds for services proven to reduce offending.
With each prisoner costing the state $318 per day, that will buy a lot of prevention.
The recent protests, the growing prison population, the calls of First Nations communities and even the Victorian Law Reform Commission all say one thing: Victoria’s bail law must be fixed.
The Andrews Government knows this. And now it must act.
Dr Tim Read is the Greens State MP for Brunswick, Victoria.
Independent Australia sought comment from the Office of the Premier of Victoria on the above op-ed and received the following statement:
Across Australia, rates of Aboriginal over-representation in the justice system are unacceptable – which is why reducing those rates is now a key priority of the National Cabinet.
Our focus has always been on listening to Aboriginal Victorians and taking an approach that is focused on self-determination.
We established the Aboriginal Justice Agreement, which is now in its fourth phase and the longest running agreement of its kind in Australia and has self-determination at its core.
We also know there can be no true reconciliation without Treaty and we are also working in partnership with the Aboriginal Victorian community - through the First Peoples' Assembly - to progress this.
The Victorian Budget 2018/19 invested $40.3 million to implement the fourth and current phase of the Agreement.
In our latest budget, we allocated almost $20 million over four years to reduce the incarceration of women, with a particular focus on Aboriginal women.
This includes more than $2 million to provide wrap around legal and non-legal services to Aboriginal women, contribute to the Aboriginal Women’s Transitional Housing Program and for a feasibility study for a culturally responsive residential diversion program.
Victoria was the first jurisdiction to set a Closing the Gap target for rates of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people under justice supervision by 2031.
We also made a significant commitment last year to decriminalise public drunkenness, and have committed to introducing a legislated spent convictions scheme.
Through the Aboriginal Justice Agreement Phase 4, are working to further develop and implement culturally responsive initiatives to support the rehabilitation of Aboriginal offenders and prisoners.
Initiatives to be implemented under the agreement include:
- building and strengthening support to help Aboriginal people comply with the conditions of CCOs
- improving access to culturally safe mental health services for Aboriginal people serving CCOs or on parole with mental health treatment conditions
- strengthening pre- and post-release cultural supports for Aboriginal people in prison, including an Elders Mentoring Program
- delivering an employment service to Aboriginal people in prison
- supporting and expanding the Statewide Indigenous Arts in Prison and Community Program delivered by The Torch.
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