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Jan 11, 2013

Why locking up blackfellas is not the answer

Is it fair to blame violence in indigenous communities on lenient sentences for Aboriginal men? Amy McQuire criticises recent comments by Mick Gooda and proposes a different approach.

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The issue of the skyrocketing incarceration of young indigenous people flares up every few years, with politicians and media riding out the shockwaves and then returning to the issue with little improvement to report.

The latest instalment comes via The Australian, which to its credit has spent the past week focusing on a number of outrageous and inconsistent sentencing decisions which have contributed to this incarceration rate, including the case of an Aboriginal teenager in Parkes, NSW, sentenced to 12 months imprisonment for stealing a packet of hamburger buns.

Although shocking, such outcomes are not uncommon. Unfortunately, the use of the old device — demonising Aboriginal men — formed part of the newspaper’s narrative.

The federal government’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda told the paper that the disparity between domestic violence sentencing decisions of Aboriginal men in remote areas and the sentencing of indigenous youth for minor offences in regional and urban areas was “perverse”.

“Very rarely do you see these cases of horrific domestic violence killings in Aboriginal communities being tried as murders,” he told the newspaper. “Yet kids that didn’t bash anyone get sentenced to 12 months in jail for stealing a packet of hamburger buns … it’s as if it’s seen as all right for Aboriginal men to bash women that’s what they do.”

This is without doubt a major issue. Sadly, the statistics show indigenous youth are more likely to come into contact with police than non-Indigenous youth.

About 40% of indigenous males have reported being charged with an offence under the age of 25. They are also more likely to re-offend, and to end up back in the prison system as adults. The situation is getting worse, not better.

But is Gooda on the right track? He draws a strange comparison — “it’s as if it’s seen as all right for Aboriginal men to bash women that’s what they do” — given that Aboriginal men from remote areas are the most incarcerated group in Australia.

Sentencing decisions should always be discussed and debated on the individual circumstances of the case — including the offender’s background. Domestic violence is a scourge on our communities, as it is in the wider community, but it is deeply simplistic to claim the court system is giving Aboriginal men the right to bash women. And it diverts attention away from the issue at hand — the overpolicing and targeting of indigenous youth, both in remote, regional and urban settings.

Courts have a long history of taking the experiences of Aboriginality into account in sentencing decisions — including the severe social and economic disadvantages that come with being Aboriginal in a remote community.

Sensational reporting of these cases does little to help solve the underlying issues that lead to domestic violence, and I fail to see how sending more Aboriginal men to jail will help break the cycle.

Gooda gave the much-publicised example of a disturbing rape case in Aurukun, which was sent to the Queensland Appeals Court following national and international outrage at the lenient sentences given to the perpetrators. But he gave no other examples of Aboriginal men receiving lenient sentences for domestic violence cases.

Locking up blackfellas as a solution will not solve the poverty and disadvantage within Aboriginal communities. It will not put an end to the violence. It will not resurrect so-called “social norms”.

For example, the Northern Territory already hands out mandatory sentences for violent crimes. It’s a system that has been criticised by the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency.

NAAJA chief executive Priscilla Collins recently appealed to the CLP government to closely examine the NT’s justice system. “The Northern Territory already has the toughest sentencing regime in Australia for assaults,” she pointed out. “Assaults which result in harm already carry a sentence of mandatory imprisonment.

“There is nothing to suggest that violent offenders are getting off light and the court system already allows for appeals if a sentence is too low … The prisons are full,” she said. Indigenous incarceration in the NT has jumped 90% in the past decade.

Governments are spending big on locking up Aboriginal people, but failing to divert much-needed funds to combating the causes of crime. Putting the focus back onto black-on-black crime, which is already disproportionately reported by media, will only mean the crucial underlying issues will continue to fly under the radar.

The future of Aboriginal communities is deeply invested in the future of our young people. It’s crucial that we begin trying to fix the failings in our criminal justice system, and break this cycle.

*Amy McQuire is editor of Tracker magazine, a monthly Aboriginal rights publication. She is a Darumbal and South Sea Islander journalist from Rockhampton in Queensland.

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9 thoughts on “Why locking up blackfellas is not the answer

  1. Bette Blance

    In the past the reoffending rate for inmates in the US is around 40%. In a prison in Los Angeles, over a period of 5 years a university study has shown a drop to less that 3%. Of 500 prisoners taught Choice Theory, 175 have been paroled and only 5 have returned. Check out this article http://www.insidecdcr.ca.gov/2012/08/cdcr-educators-volunteer-long-hours-achieve-less-than-3-recidivism/

    This type of work has been done in Chiangi in Singapore as well.

    My argument will always be that we need to get to young people before they end up in prison. This training shows that learning Choice Theory works. Schools that teach Choice Theory ( William Glasser) have great academic results as well as minimal disruptive behaviour.

  2. Christopher Nagle

    Anything to do with indigenous affairs is surrounded by a culture of fear and cant; fear of being seen as a ‘racist’ and cant as in a complete inability to honestly confront anyone with diificult home truths.

    Indigenous affairs has become an appalling sacred cow that everyone tip toes around because the cow is dangerous and it bites like a camel and kicks like a mule. And our human rights friends are every bit a part of the problem as their paternalist predecessors.

    It is obvious to everyone that just incarcerating people of any ethnic or social group for their crimes, is of very limited use other than to temporarily remove them from society so that they cannot do further damage to it for a while. It does nothing to remove the anti-social values embedded in those convicted and confined.

    Aside from some very tough individual ‘re-education’, nothing much is going to alter individual patterns of offending. But at a social and political level, we can at least call the bluff of those who try to exculpate rotten ‘community’ values by appealing to ‘disadvantage’ and and the enduring consequences of a dismal history.

    I think a now multi-cultural society should be prepared to front some indigenous and other welfare based communities and honestly tell them that we don’t accept excuses and will be prepared to get very intrusively ‘involved’ if any ethnic or social group have a propensity for poor behavior, which they then pass on to their children.

    I think it behoves say Muslim communities to speak out and say how Sharia law would apply to the behavior commonly happening in indigenous and other long term welfare dependent ‘communities’. Muslims don’t tolerate poor behavior and ‘disadvantage’ is no defense whatever.

    Secular liberals have lost this plot in what I think will be seen in the longer term as a thoroughly disgraceful fashion, that will ultimately discredit them for generations.

    See my essay on this called ‘A Sorry Story’ at

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