While Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people comprise only 3 per cent of the Australian population, they account for up 28% of people in our jails and are imprisoned at a rate 13 times higher than that of non-Indigenous people. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are also 7.9 times more likely to be taken into police custody and are 12 times more likely to be in community based correction programs.

These figures are concerning and heartbreaking. They are also getting worse.

This week I am in Alice Springs, home to a large and proud Aboriginal community as well as people from many other backgrounds and nationalities. It is also a place where inequality is in plain view. Listening to our staff, I wonder whether it’s actually racism towards Aboriginal community members that we should be calling out? Perhaps something we don’t like to admit to in Australia? Centuries of dispossession and inequality continue to have a profound impact on Aboriginal people today.

It is now more than a year since ABC TV’s Four Corners exposed the abuse and punishment of vulnerable children at Darwin's Don Dale Youth Detention Centre, sparking a Royal Commission. Last year the Queensland Government also called an independent review into Queensland's youth detention centres. It is against this backdrop that the Australian Government has charged the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) to hold an Inquiry into the Incarceration Rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.

There is recognition from many community and legal organisations that urgent intervention is needed to stop the increasing rates of imprisonment and to address the underlying social and personal issues that are the cause of the unacceptable numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people being pushed into our justice system.

Australia is falling short of providing equal life opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and outcomes will only improve with significant, long-term and targeted efforts that are led by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples themselves and supported by the broader community.

Mission Australia’s submission to the ALRC Inquiry talks to our experience working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, particularly young people, which has strengthened our understanding of the need for targeted and culturally appropriate services.

In NSW, Mission Australia’s Junaa Buwa! and MAC River provide residential rehabilitation for young people who have entered, or are at risk of entering, the juvenile justice system. Many of the young people who stay at the centres identify as Aboriginal, so many culturally relevant activities are offered such as cultural camps, a cultural/yarning area, Aboriginal art including didgeridoo making, clapsticks and totem poles, and engagement with an Aboriginal men’s group for mentoring.

Traditional camps are also run by Mission Australia staff in Townsville in collaboration with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service, to support local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people who are involved in the criminal justice system and are at high risk of reoffending. The three-day camps are based on the premise that connection to mob and to country is an essential part of health as a first nation person and they give young people the chance to participate in activities such as learning to identify traditional bush tucker, observing traditional spear making for fishing and visiting cultural sites. Commissioners from the Northern Territory Royal Commission visited our Supported Community Accommodation Townsville service that runs the camps to see for themselves the immense value of these intensive and tailored supports.

Many of our services work with young people in contact with the justice system, so we have seen firsthand how important early intervention and diversion programs are for young people at risk. Research has found that if an Aboriginal young person comes in contact with the juvenile justice system between the ages of 10 to 14, they are ‘almost certain’ to be imprisoned as an adult. This is a distressing finding that must be addressed with urgency.

The positive outcomes that we have seen at Mission Australia services that work with young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across Australia show us that it is possible to make meaningful impacts.

Our Spin 180 Youth Sailing Program is a joint initiative with Darwin Sailing Club that works with young people at risk, including those who have engaged with the juvenile justice system. It helps those young people to build self-confidence, self-esteem and resilience, while strengthening communication skills and their ability to work in teams. One of the young people who participated has been selected to sail next week in a Sydney Youth Regatta. He is testimony to the positive changes possible when young people are supported rather than detained.

When a person has been imprisoned, it is crucial that they are supported as they reintegrate into the community. Mission Australia works with young men at the Wandoo Reintegration Facility in Western Australia to help them with that transition, to connect them with their community and to reduce the chance of them reoffending and re-engaging with the justice system.

Addressing disadvantage is key to reducing the stark over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in both juvenile detention and adult prison. Young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, in particular, must be offered alternative pathways that offer them positive experiences and opportunities to engage with work, education and their communities. Imprisonment must be a last resort.

Catherine Yeomans

Catherine Yeomans
CEO Mission Australia


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