Urgent need to address Australia’s national disgrace

Oxfam Australia is calling on the newly announced National Federation Reform Council to urgently tackle the country’s shocking rate of Indigenous incarceration, which like that of black Americans is shamefully high.

In the wake of riots in the United States, sparked by the tragic death in custody of George Floyd, Oxfam Australia Chief Executive Lyn Morgain said Australians should not think that their justice system treated First Peoples any better.

“What is happening in the United States is the consequence of racialised social and economic disparity and associated structural violence,” Ms Morgain said.

“Identical forms of this systemic discrimination exist here in Australia. Oxfam Australia stands with those who identify and seek to change these disparities.”

Ms Morgain said Indigenous Australians were 11 times over-represented in Australian prisons, and for Aboriginal women the rate increases to an appalling 14 times the non-Indigenous population.

“Indigenous incarceration has more than doubled since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody 29 years ago,” Ms Morgain said. “In Western Australia, the state that sparked the Royal Commission, the Indigenous imprisonment rate is 17 times the rest of the population.”

Ms Morgain said Australia’s world-record rates of imprisonment of First Peoples were driven by a justice system that was biased against Aboriginal people, including children – as recently found by an Australian Law Reform Commission report.

“It’s a national disgrace and a tragedy that since the Royal Commission reported in 1991, more than 430 Indigenous people have died in custody,” Ms Morgain said.

“Not only are these high rates of imprisonment damaging to the individuals in prison, but also to communities and families, to children left without their mothers and fathers. Children are also the direct victims of this biased justice system. In the Northern Territory, nearly all of the young people in detention are Aboriginal children.”

Ms Morgain said the National Federation Reform Council needed to urgently support law reform that targeted the drivers of the over-imprisonment of Indigenous people, such as mandatory minimum penalties for alcohol related and other minor offences.

Australian governments also needed to back the expansion of justice reinvestment programs that focussed on preventative support in communities. In Bourke in New South Wales, where Oxfam Australia supports a Men’s Hub, domestic violence rates have dropped by more than 30 per cent and the economic benefit from lower rates of imprisonment in 2017 was $3.1 million, according to analysis by KPMG.

As a rights-based organisation, Oxfam Australia is a supporter of Indigenous-led groups that are advocating for a smarter approach to justice for Indigenous Australians. This includes Change the Record, the Maranguka Justice Reinvestment Project, Social Reinvestment WA and Just Reinvest NSW.

“Oxfam acknowledges the way that violence and injustice is being perpetrated against the bodies, lives, communities and opportunities of Indigenous Peoples and People of Color, both globally and in Australia,” Ms Morgain said.

“We understand the urgent requirement and demand for change to address this crisis. This is what this global outpouring of grief and rage against intolerable injustice is about.”

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