Government and governance, Law, Social policy | Australia

19 November 2019

Addressing inequality in the justice system and identifying the root causes of societal problems, the recent Northern Territory Aboriginal Justice Agreement is a step in the right direction for Australia’s Indigenous communities, but there is still much progress yet to be made, Vernon White writes.

Recently, the Northern Territory (NT) government released a draft Northern Territory Aboriginal Justice Agreement, with an aim of the Agreement to focus on the reduction of over-representation of the Indigenous population in the criminal justice system.

Predominantly, the Agreement identifies that reforming of the ‘racially intolerant criminal justice system’ is at its core. This is not just a problem faced by the Northern Territory, or even by Australians, but is a problem faced by many countries that were Indigenous societies before being settled by Europeans. If successful, the policies identified by this Agreement as a path forward for the Northern Territory could also be a path forward for other countries.

In the Agreement, there are many areas identified and targeted to improve the justice system. The justice system has an identifiable over-representation of Indigenous detainees, as the report notes, but the context is important.

An example found in the report accompanying the Agreement states that 84 per cent of adult prisoners in the NT were Indigenous, despite Indigenous people accounting for just 25.9 per cent of the NT’s adult population.

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This means that Indigenous men and Indigenous women are 15 and 14 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-Indigenous men and women.

Understanding that over-representation is key to any changes in the justice system. This is extremely important because those who would speak with limited knowledge of the real issues faced in Indigenous communities might be quick to say that the issue is crime and criminal behaviour, rather than a societal problem.

The stark reality, however, tells us that the issues in these communities are societal before they become criminal. This Agreement accepts that reality and rather than targeting criminal behaviour targets the root causes of the problems resulting in criminal behaviour in Indigenous communities.

As we have seen in Indigenous communities in countries like Canada, Australian Indigenous people have repeatedly faced the impact of failed social policy. The changes being suggested in this justice Agreement may not change that social policy, but they do recognise the reality of life in many Indigenous communities and the impact those policies have had on the people living in them.

The identification of the changes needed in the justice system and the implementation of those changes might bring about a better understanding of the challenges faced by Indigenous people.

From this Agreement, we could see a justice system that makes and implements a number of significant changes in the administration of justice in Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory.

Some changes include the involvement of elders in community justice programs and sentencing, alternative community based residential facilities for sentenced offenders, community-based early intervention and diversion programs for youth offenders and, finally, significant changes to the Bail Act and the Sentencing Act that recognise the reality of the unique challenges Indigenous offenders face.

Having worked as a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police for almost 19 years in the three northern territories of Canada, which are predominantly Indigenous, I have seen my fair share of problems. I have personally seen what the impact of failed social policy has had on Indigenous communities.

Not unlike Australia, there is significant over-representation of Indigenous people in the Canadian justice system.

The changes being proposed by the NT justice Agreement will be a good start on addressing this if successful, but they will require a concentrated effort by justice officials, community leaders, and government over an extended period of time.

As an elder once told me when asked about solutions to problems in his community, “If it takes two days to walk into the bush, it will take two more to walk out”. Sadly, the walk into the bush has been going for a long time, and any success will not be found quickly.

The Agreement represents a positive move on the part of the government and suggests that as the NT develops alternative justice systems for its Indigenous inhabitants that they consider other areas of improvement too.

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Firstly, it also recommends that they consider the importance of increased resources for mental health and addictions. A recent Australian Government report identified that a full 40 per cent of incarcerated people had been diagnosed with a mental illness and that 65 per cent had used illegal drugs in the year previous to their incarceration.

Managing the over-representation of Indigenous people in the justice system will require increased access to programs to tackle both mental health and addictions to have a serious shot at success.

Secondly, although diversion is an important aspect of criminal justice reform, the report also points out that this endeavour requires a strong restorative justice program as well. This will ensure that accountability and victim-centred programming can better assure victims that they too are a central part of justice reform.

Remembering that most victims in these communities are Indigenous too, and engaging those victims, will be essential to any success. Restorative justice programs throughout Indigenous communities across Northern Canada have also shown that such an initiative when supported with the required support services for addictions and mental illness, can be successful.

This initiative is a positive step for Indigenous people in the NT, but it is also only a small step on what will be a long road to improving the lives of Indigenous people in Australia and will require concentration and commitment seldom seen in Australia’s approach to Indigenous policy.

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