Stop sending Indigenous Australians to jail: Calma

ABC News

MARK COLVIN: One more reason for squalor in some Aboriginal communities is that so many Indigenous people are in jail.

There's a chicken-and-egg debate about whether that's because they're disadvantaged, or whether it's actually the cause of disadvantage, but most in the field agree that it's a cycle that needs to be broken somehow.

The Federal Government is soon to be asked to take radical steps in this area, by refraining from sending Aboriginal and other disadvantaged people to jail.

It was one of the topics covered at a young Indigenous crime conference in the Sydney suburb of Parramatta today.

Western Sydney reporter George Roberts has the details.

GEORGE ROBERTS: In the next couple of months the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice commissioner, Tom Calma, will give the Federal Government his recommendations on an overhaul of the justice system.

Those recommendations include a concept called justice re-investment, which he says is getting results in the US and the UK.

The idea is to try and make life better for those who live in high crime communities, rather than send so many of them to jail.

Commissioner Calma says instead of spending money on jail sentences, governments should spend it on helping the community.

TOM CALMA: It's the lack employment, overcrowding houses, poor access to education et cetera, that are some of the key reasons why people offend. So let's start to invest to build up the strength of the community, the capacity of the community, educating the whole community and from that we'll see, hopefully and the experience internationally shows that we will see, you know some massive changes in incarceration rates.

GEORGE ROBERTS: One of the delegates mingling at the conference is Rick Welsh, a 36-year-old Indigenous man from Sydney.

He runs community programs to help other Indigenous men in the city's west and he says he constantly sees evidence of how the system works against Indigenous people.

RICK WELSH: Earlier this year I got pulled over, 'cos I'd moved houses and stuff, lost my licence and didn't know it. It took seven police cars, 16 officers to pull me over to tell me I never had a licence.

GEORGE ROBERTS Rick Welsh has also experience firsthand of how hard it is for Indigenous people to get proper representation.

RICK WELSH: I spent the best part of my life in Redfern. I went to try and get on the Aboriginal justice committee in Redfern; they said no you can't because you've got a criminal record. These days it's a pre-requisite for being an Aboriginal isn't it, having a criminal record?

(Sound of laughing and clapping)

GEORGE ROBERTS: But the problems are more widespread than that.

Professor Chris Cunneen is a law lecturer at the University of New South Wales and he's focussed his career on studying Indigenous juvenile justice.

He says there are national inequities in the number of Indigenous people being held on remand, the sentences they get and their access to proper defence.

CHRIS CUNNEEN: The basic problem and again this is a national problem, is that Aboriginal legal services are underfunded in terms of the volume of work that they have to take on. And what that means is that they tend to get young lawyers that are inexperienced because they pay them less. As soon as a lawyer gets some experience they can go to the DPP or Legal Aid and get paid more. So they have inexperienced lawyers, there's a high level of turnover and they tend to have a much higher case load than either lawyers that work for the DPP or lawyers that work for Legal Aid.

GEORGE ROBERTS: That's been highlighted in the Northern Territory.

CHRIS CUNNEEN: The Northern Australian Aboriginal Legal Service had, I think on average about $17 to spend per client, per case, compared to Legal Aid commission which had about $762 per client.

GEORGE ROBERTS: Professor Cunneen agrees that Commissioner Calma's plan will go part way to fixing the injustice in the justice system.

But the concept of not sending criminals to jail, will take a new focus and Commissioner Calma hasn't forgotten the need to consider the victims.

TOM CALMA: When you start to work within the community, people, including victims, can see that something is being done and that has a fairly, fairly strong cathartic effect on people.

MARK COLVIN: The Aboriginal and Torres strait Islander social justice commissioner, Tom Calma, talking to George Roberts.

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