In handing down the sixth annual Closing the Gap report on indigenous disadvantage, Prime Minister Tony Abbott introduced a new metric: to close the school attendance gap within five years. But it’s not the new target some Aboriginal leaders were expecting.

Many believed the government would add a target to address the shockingly high rate of indigenous incarceration.

The idea seemed to have had bipartisan support last year. In August, then-indigenous affairs minister Jenny Macklin committed Labor to developing the target. Opposition indigenous affairs spokesman Nigel Scullion indicated he too supported the inclusion of new targets, telling The Australian it “needed to be considered”.

Even before this burst of bipartisanship, a 2011 parliamentary inquiry also found support for the idea, reporting “these targets should then be monitored and reported against”.

But there was nothing in Abbott’s speech. Opposition Leader Bill Shorten reminded the PM of Labor’s commitment to an incarceration target, urging the government to work with state governments to implement a new target. He also accused the government of inconsistency, saying: “Since the election, the government has sent a spectrum of signals on these new targets.”

Julie Perkins, regional manager of the ACT/NSW Aboriginal Legal Service, agrees the government has sent out mixed signals. The ALS had expected the new government to implement justice targets, taking into consideration the comments of both sides of Parliament in the run-up to the election.

“We took a lot from last year in 2013. We all know both sides of government expressed commitment to incorporate a justice target. No one has come to us and said it would not be included. We were hopeful from last year that whoever got power that they would look at putting these targets in the report,” she said.

Imprisonment rates for indigenous Australians are around 12 times that of the general population. And, despite a fall in overall rates of juvenile detention, the rate of indigenous juveniles in detention has remained steady. One in every two juveniles in detention is indigenous.

“We all know about the high incarceration rates,” Perkins told Crikey. “It’s quite a shock to us that something as critical as this was not put in there and there was no real discussion.”

Stuart Ross, director and senior researcher at the Melbourne Centre for Criminological Research and Evaluation, is similarly bemused. A justice target help lower the number of Aboriginal people being incarcerated while tackling Aboriginal victimisation. “The victimisation rates in indigenous communities are high as well,” he said.

The report goes some way to addressing victimisation, detailing law enforcement targets under the section “Safer Communities”. According to Ross, better addressing vicitmisation rates will lead to gains in other targets around health.

It’s a message that proponents of the justice target have been pushing now for some years: that without progress on Aboriginal justice, other targets will stall. Including, Perkins points out, the Prime Minister’s pet target of school attendance.

“Once they [juveniles] are released that will affect their school attendance,” she said. “They’re very much hand-in-hand. We have to have the justice target — if we don’t have those it will affect the outcomes of the school target.”

Then there are health targets. Kirstie Parker, co-chair of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, draws a direct line between the two. “The over-representation of our peoples in the criminal justice system … is both cause and effect for the poor state of health, education and employment of so many of our families and communities,” she said.

Stuart Ross agreed: “I think one of the big issues for indigenous disadvantage is where you have communities with large numbers of people being imprisoned; that in turn has significant impact on child development, it has an impact on economic participation, on health and so on.”

The need for action is critical, advocates say, because of the high numbers of juvenile Aboriginals in detention. “Our young people make up 5% of the general population, but 53% of the population in detention centres. Fifty-two per cent of those are unsentenced; 91% are young boys,” Perkins said.

“What sort of a future are we going to have when we lock people up at those rates?”

UPDATE: Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion provided this statement to Crikey:

“Reducing indigenous jail rates is a priority. High incarceration rates are a complex issue. Many indigenous offenders are incarcerated for violence towards indigenous people fuelled by drugs or alcohol. We need to look at reducing the rate of offending which leads to high incarceration rates.

“The best thing we can do to reduce incarceration rates is to ensure young people have an education and are on a pathway to employment. There is no doubt that if you are not receiving an education you have a very high likelihood of moving towards the justice system.

“We also need to better engage better with those in custody to ensure better outcomes in employment after release. Reducing the incidence of recidivism is critical. The government is considering its position on the introduction of a target for incarceration rates.

“We need to ensure that we do not diminish the importance of current targets by any additions. The existing six targets were agreed to by the Council of Australian Governments in 2008 and any change sin targets are a matter for agreement through COAG.

“Setting target is one thing, achieving result is another. The government would need to be satisfied that a new target is the appropriate mechanism  to improve real outcomes.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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