Opinion piece by Success Works Board member Dr. Prudence Black
Most Australians are giving consideration about how they will vote in the upcoming referendum to change the Constitution to recognise the First Nations People of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. Some of us are looking back to the 27 May 1967 Referendum which was the last referendum that directly addressed Australia’s First Nations people. The Referendum was one of the most successful national campaigns in Australia’s history with 90.77 percent of Australians voting Yes to enable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to be counted as part of the population and for the Commonwealth to be able to make laws for them.
It is almost 60 years since the Referendum, and the lives of many First Nations people continue to be at a great disadvantage. The statistics are stark. First Nations people continue to die earlier than other Australians and have far worse health, economic, and employment outcomes. Since 1967, the incarceration rate for First Nations people has almost doubled. In 2021, the incarceration rate for First Nation people was 10 times higher than that of the general population, and the number of First Nations people on remand was nearly 15 times that of non-First Nations people. It is important to note that First Nations people represent 3.3% of the nation’s population (ABS 2021).
Last month, Senior Australian of the Year and Chancellor of the ANU, Professor Tom Calma AO gave a talk ‘Voices on the Voice – First Nations Health and the Voice’ at the University of Sydney. He recommended that to understand something about Indigenous lives we should read the ‘Pathways to Justice Report’ written by the Australian Law Commission in 2017. There were no surprises that the report emphasised the over-representation of First Nations people in the Australian prison system. What Calma stressed was the importance of understanding the root causes of why First Nations people go to jail.
“We the [First Nations people] we get blamed. The high levels of incarceration. We get blamed yes. People are offending. You only have to dig into the surface of it….”
As Calma suggested it is important to understand why people offend. Success Works is an organisation that works with women who have a criminal record, and they are well aware of some of the key issues relating to the women in the criminal justice system. The staff at Success Works know that:
“The overwhelming majority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in prison are survivors of physical and sexual violence. Many also struggle with housing insecurity, poverty, mental illness, disability, and the effects of trauma.”
“The number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander parents—particularly women—in prison has a direct effect on the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care, which is a recognised pathway to youth detention and adult offending.”
(Pathways to Justice Report, 2017).
It’s not all bad news. Calma also talked about the value of justice reinvestment which was heavily profiled in the report. The example he mentioned was the community-led ‘Maranguka’ justice reinvestment program in Bourke, NSW. It was the first major site in Australia to implement an Aboriginal-led place-based model of justice reinvestment. By treating the underlying causes of crime, the program model has resulted in becoming the ‘gold standard,’
“It has been led by the Aboriginal community, all members of the community have got behind it… the business sector, the police…and all the other government departments have got behind it… We’ve seen phenomenal outcomes; we’ve seen massive reductions in youth crime…”
Within three years of the program being rolled out, there was also a reduction in bail breaches and days spent in custody for adults. This preventative community-led approach resulted in community well-being including reducing the demand on police, courts, and corrections.
By giving the community a voice, the impact on the Bourke community was considerable -strengthening the community and preventing crime- today the model is being rolled out in other Aboriginal communities across NSW.
Success Works acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of the lands where we work. We acknowledge the disproportionate number of Indigenous, Aboriginal, and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in the criminal justice system and the impact on women, children, and communities. We pay our respects to Elders past and present.
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