Northern Territory

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.

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

    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. Jon Hunt

    I see just now that the NT Attorney-General’s opinion is that it is the parent’s fault their children end up in jail and it’s not his responsibility to do anything about it. He suggests that “boot camps” are the answer. Presumably he thinks this will cure poverty, dispossession and so on. If it’s the parent’s fault then why is the problem of high rates of Aboriginal incarceration so much higher in the NT and not in the states? Is the quality of the parents that much poorer in the NT, or is it because the NT just handles this problem so much poorly?

  3. GF50

    Agree completely that it a total failure of a justice system that does not advocate for social equality instead of draconian sentancing of aboriginal communities. I know that education, respect and equality, lead (eventually) to lower crime rates, where harsher penalties do not.

  4. 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

  5. minnamurra

    An excellent piece, we need to see more journalism like this! The question needs to be asked, why is it that our social justice commissioner is not more across this issue? Trotting out old examples is not good enough. This is one of the most important human rights issues in Australia today, the ongoing incarceration of Aboriginal men that impacts deeply on family and community life and the outrageous rates of deaths in custody. The resource of the social justice commissioner need to be fosussed on this issue and work with governments and the legal fraternity come up with lasting solutions.

  6. shepmyster

    It’s not just Aboriginal men that are misrepresented. basically it’s our whole criminal justice system. By an unethical & incompetent media.
    Of coarse we all know thanks to the Murdoch press that longer mandatory sentencing will be the panacea for all woes. I live in Victoria where it’s normal to be so frightened of being raped or murdered that’s its difficult if not fool hardy to set out alone in public. Rest assured that someone’s going to get you (most probably by that bloke who got let out 6 months early).
    Until we have a media that can competently represent the facts we will always have these discrepancies and forever suffer the consequences of misinformed decisions.

  7. Achmed

    Minnamurra – deaths in custody are well down even though successive state governments ave not implemented many of the recommendations from the Royal Commission.
    In WA more Prison Officers committ suicide than prisoners.

  8. Achmed

    In WA there was a Corrective Services Minister who told the prison system that until they could prove they were stopping people coming to prison then there would be no approval for any more prisons built.
    WA has now spent millions introducing programs to address offending behaviour and the rate of imprisonment remains unchanged.
    Prisons get the person when they ar 18 years old, 18 years of learned ingrained behaviours and poor role models. While prison can do its “bit” the social ills in the community the person comes from need to be addressed. Other all that is happening is the person returning to the same disfunctional family/community.
    The idea that 6 months in prison can totally change a person with such ingrained behaviours is the “Disney Syndrome”- The thought that you can take some waif or criminal give them and warm meal and a cuddle and they become good citizens
    The generational unemployment, alcoholism and domestic violence in the family/community needs to be addressed.
    I speak from 30 years experience working in the Pilbara and Kimberley in prisons and community justice

  9. Johnson Mack

    This is the sort of article I would expect from someone associated with tracker magazine. Aboriginal people commit crimes and they are then the victims. Certainly the teenager should not have been given such a heavy sentence for stealing bread rolls. But let’s keep things in perspective. Courts often make ridiculous decisions against criminals of all cultures. There are some Aboriginal people like Geoff Clark and Sugar Ray Robinson who tell you that the law has been very good to them.

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