While the Northern Territory intervention continues to dominate reporting of Aboriginal affairs, the shocking number of young Aborigines in NSW Prisons is all but ignored.
There are nine juvenile justice centres in NSW holding around 400 offenders — more than half are Aboriginal.
Despite making up only 2.2 per cent of the NSW population in the 2006 census, aboriginals now make up almost 60 per cent of all juvenile inmates, according to the NSW Department of Juvenile Justice.
The proportion of Aboriginal youth in detention has always been high, but in the last 15 years it has almost doubled, up from 27.8 per cent of all inmates in 1993 to 56.3 in 2008.
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In June this year the Government tried to keep confidential a Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research report, showing that the overall juvenile remand population in NSW grew by 32 per cent — from an average of 181 a day in 2007 to 239 a day in 2008.
In response, the NSW Government announced last month an inquiry into why NSW has more juvenile offenders locked up than any other state or territory, but it will not examine why so many are Aboriginal. A previous 2005 inquiry into the NSW Juvenile Justice system led to the creation of the Aboriginal Justice Plan to deal with the continuing over-representation of Aboriginal people in NSW prisons, however the latest figures would suggest that plan has failed.
The NSW Aboriginal Legal Service and other organisations have called for the inquiry to examine why aboriginal people are so disproportionately represented in juvenile detention, but so far the Government has ruled out any investigation based on race.
Speaking about the inquiry NSW Juvenile Justice Minister Graham West acknowledged problems with the number of youth in the system, but only from a general point of view, making no admission there is an issue with Aboriginal youth. NSW Attorney General John Hatzistergos has also refused to acknowledge the failure of Government policy in stemming the growing influx of aboriginal youth into NSW Prisons.
“Offenders are prosecuted and sentenced equally before the law in NSW and we make no apology for working hard to address juvenile crime,” he said when asked about the figures on Aboriginal youth in detention.
NSW Greens MLC and indigenous spokeswoman Sylvia Hale said the Government was more interested in appearances than solutions when it came to dealing with difficult issues. Hale blamed punitive bail and sentencing laws introduced in 2007 during one the State Governments routine “get tough on crime” campaigns for the high number of aboriginal youth in detention.
According to Hale, the law systemically discriminates against Aboriginal young people and entrenches aboriginal disadvantage.
Hatzistergos, who claimed, “the law makes no distinctions on the basis of race”, rejected this.